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Grade Inflation in Higher Education 1077

ProfBooty writes "A recent Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post on grade inflation by a Professor at Duke. Obviously this guy doesn't teach engineering courses. Quite honestly, I can't understand why science and engineering majors are held to one standard for grades and academics versus humanities majors even in the same school. Perhaps it is because people's lives hang in the balance when they interact with the products and structures designed by science/engineering students. Perhaps it is because they aren't worried about hurting students self esteem? It really is too bad the media doesn't report enough on education from the technical side."
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Grade Inflation in Higher Education

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  • by aengblom ( 123492 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:46PM (#5182578) Homepage
    Liberal arts majors have the social skills to negotiate higher grades.

    Engineers don't. ;-)
    • by Anne_Nonymous ( 313852 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:54PM (#5182672) Homepage Journal
      Engineers have the M4d 5ki11z to hack higher grades though.
    • by SuperGrut ( 452229 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:54PM (#5182673)
      I used to teach Algebra and Statistics in College. Most of the students were nurses but there were a few lawyers. They would always try to argue their grades up. I would just have to tell them that you can't argue the number 25 into the number 10. The answer was wrong and they would just have to live with the grade.
      • "They would always try to argue their grades up. I would just have to tell them that you can't argue the number 25 into the number 10."

        If you had said "you can't argueu the num ber 10 into the number 25", I would have assumed Hillary Rosen was one of your students.
      • by User 956 ( 568564 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @02:25PM (#5182987) Homepage
        Well sure, "At Duke, Pomona, Harvard and elsewhere, D's and F's combined now represent about 2 percent of all grades given.", but everyone seems to forget that in College, if you get those grades a few times, they kick you out.
        • by Hays ( 409837 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @02:53PM (#5183280)
          These schools have 98 or 99 percent 4 year graduation rates, so that's not really causing a large bias.
        • by calethix ( 537786 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @02:55PM (#5183288) Homepage
          Well sure, "At Duke, Pomona, Harvard and elsewhere, D's and F's combined now represent about 2 percent of all grades given.", but everyone seems to forget that in College, if you get those grades a few times, they kick you out.
          I think that's a problem with the administration though. It's unrealistic to think that everyone in a class can be above average. That's what a C is supposed to mean right? Perhaps the people that think everyone should get A's and B's needs to go back to school themselves and take some math classes so they know what average means.
          • by Lemmy Caution ( 8378 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @03:25PM (#5183523) Homepage
            That is based on the faulty reasoning that all grades are on a curve, and are inherently competitive. I think it's more valid to use grades to indicate mastery of the material, not your relative position versus other classmates.

            In other words, if everyone correctly answers that 2+2=4, everyone deserves an "A" for that problem. Trying to force that into a curve could mean that you end up getting scored on penmanship, or personal hygiene.

        • by DaveAtFraud ( 460127 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @03:00PM (#5183344) Homepage Journal
          This is old data but probably still pertinent. When I was at Ohio State (BSc '78, MSc '80) the student paper published the average grade given in the various schools. This ranged from a low of just barely over 2.0 in Math and Chemistry to a high of something like 3.64 in Education. You can chalk some of this up to everyone having a math prerequisite which tends to drag down the math average but give me a break on the AVERAGE grade given in the college of education being an "A".

          The joke among those of us majoring in Math was, "But you could be an honors student in education now," whenever someone got nailed by one of the "ball buster" senior level math exams. A degree from a college or university should mean the same regardless of discipline as far as the standards the student is held to. Based on the people I ran across majoring in education, this most assuredly wasn't the case.
        • by wiredog ( 43288 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @03:01PM (#5183352) Journal
          I pulled a straight 0.0 for 3 semesters before they kicked me out.
      • by rossz ( 67331 ) <ogre@noSpAm.geekbiker.net> on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @02:28PM (#5183015) Homepage Journal
        My algebra (for electronics majors) professor would give you partial credit if you did the problem correctly but made a simple math error (you had to show ALL work or you got zero credit, even if the answer was correct). He was more intrested in you understanding the concepts. He also let us use calculators for the final because "you aren't here to prove you can do long division by hand." Another algebra professor would not let us calculators, no reason given. Seemed stupid to me. If I can't do basic arthmatic, I wouldn't be in this stupid class!
      • by silhouette ( 160305 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @03:29PM (#5183546)
        Of course you can argue the number 25 into the number 10.

        25 = 10 for extremely low values of 25.


    • by hburch ( 98908 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @02:03PM (#5182775)
      I'm continually amazed by the pleas that students make for better grades:
      • "I need a good grade to graduate this semester"
      • "I have to pass this coures because it's a prereq for other courses I need"
      • "I have to pass or I'll lose athletic eligibility"
      • "I tried real[sic] hard, but [insert excuse why they did not have time to learn the material]"
      Apparently, students believe these are often effective. Perhaps they are.
  • by GenusP ( 645673 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:47PM (#5182588)
    Well, that explains how some of these morons I work with in the IT industry got their diplomas.
  • by syntap ( 242090 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:47PM (#5182589)
    Arts majors are more subjective, while engineering degrees are objective.

    If an English major answers a test question on an interpretation of some poem, it's going to get a high grade because it's based on opinion and ther eis no "right" or "wrong" answer.

    If an engineering major gets a formula wrong, it is wrong and that's that... no gray area.
    • by afidel ( 530433 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:53PM (#5182666)
      I don't think most engineering is as black and white as "is the formula correct?" I mean at least for CS just because your program meets the project requirements doesn't mean you get an A, in fact if you have crufty code that gets the job done but is not easily read and maintainable most profs I've had won't give you an A. Maybe CS is different because programming languages are just that languages and so many of the same issues are present as in the humanities, just with a technical bent but I doubt it.
      • by kalidasa ( 577403 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @02:15PM (#5182909) Journal

        If an English major answers a test question on an interpretation of some poem, it's going to get a high grade because it's based on opinion and ther eis no "right" or "wrong" answer.

        No, that's not right (speaking as someone who has taught college level English). An interpretation must be 1. based upon a close reading of the work in question and 2. follow some established, or at least comprehensible, mechanism of interpretation. Opinions are not good answers in a humanities exam, any more than they would be in a CS exam. There's more room for ambiguity in the humnaities, true, but that ambiguity is always within what Eco has right called (in his book of this title) "the limits of interpretation." The job of the humanist is to invent within those limits, as is the job of the engineer.

        For example, if a civil engineering student tells me that he's designed a brilliant new concept for a highway bridge using nothing but cheese doodles, I'm going to ask "do you realize that cheese doodles won't be able to hold much more than their own weight?" Bzzzt! Wrong answer! If a humanist says, "well I think The Tempest is about the search for the telluric currents in 16th century Italy," I'm going to ask "and what makes you think that Shakespeare KNEW anything about the so-called telluric currents, or anything about Italian alchemists? And what in your reading of The Tempest suggests telluric currents as a subtext to the play?" Bzzzt! Just as wrong as the engineering student.

        Maybe CS is different because programming languages are just that languages and so many of the same issues are present as in the humanities, just with a technical bent but I doubt it.

        Unfortunately, natural languages have almost nothing in common with computer languages. Computer languages are for the most part 1:1 codes - the same command means the same thing in whatever context it appears in a particular language. Natural languages are not codes; an idiom means different things in different contexts. That's part of the problem comparing the two.

        At any rate, there is plenty of grade inflation in the sciences in the US: it should be noted that the author of the piece, Stuart Rojstaczer [duke.edu] is Professor of Geology, Environment and Engineering at Duke. And he says:

        The last time I gave a C was more than two years ago. That was about the time I came to realize that my grading had become anachronistic. The C, once commonly accepted, is now the equivalent of the mark of Cain on a college transcript. I have forsworn C's ever since.

        So Prof. Booty's comments in the posting are unjustified by the evidence presented (see also the data linked from the article; Stanford, a darling of the technical education world, shows a good deal of grade inflation, too); and they are probably unjustified, period. I suspect that if you were to track grade inflation on both sides of Snow's Two Culture rift, you'd see the same steep slope.

        Just because you don't understand the humanities doesn't mean it's not academically rigorous. I know plenty of humanists who would stupidly assume that programming doesn't require any brains; after all, "it's just writing down instructions for machines. What's so hard about that.")

        • by Otter ( 3800 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @03:00PM (#5183347) Journal
          I suspect that if you were to track grade inflation on both sides of Snow's Two Culture rift, you'd see the same steep slope...Just because you don't understand the humanities doesn't mean it's not academically rigorous.

          You may see similar slopes but the absolute levels are wildly different. I certainly earned straight A's in humanities classes (literature and a lot of Asian history and language) with a fraction of the effort required to maintain a B average as a molecular biology major. (Yale, if that matters.) That's one anecdotal datum, of course.

          If a humanist says, "well I think The Tempest is about the search for the telluric currents in 16th century Italy," I'm going to ask "and what makes you think that Shakespeare KNEW anything about the so-called telluric currents, or anything about Italian alchemists? And what in your reading of The Tempest suggests telluric currents as a subtext to the play?"

          Sure, and you're shooting a fish in a barrel by explaining that to the guy who thinks that in an literature class all answers are valid. Realistically, though, students have learned that they only need to spit back some boilerplate about how The Tempest represents dead white male colonialism and racism in the technocratic magician's domination of the person of color, Caliban. (The Tempest is that one, right? Not that it would be any more difficult to do the same thing for any other play.) "But, Professor?" asks the molecular biology major in the back. "Wasn't Shakespeare long before the 19th century British imperialism you're talking about?" Now, now, we can't have any facts interfering with color-by-numbers ideology.

          In fact, grading was so lenient, I could disagree once or twice a month and still ususally earn my way back to an A!

    • by Kwil ( 53679 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:54PM (#5182669)
      An aside to this is that it seems to be entirely possible to get 100% on an engineering exam.

      Damned unlikely, I'll grant, but theoretically it is possible.

      On the other hand, there are a lot of liberal arts exams where it is actually *impossible* to get a full 100%. Why? Because the graders "don't give grades that high." I've actually seen this happen where a student got their paper praised as the best the prof had ever seen. The student got an 85.. when she asked why she only received an 85 if this was the best ever seen, the response was, "Oh you don't understand. That's an excellent mark. I never give marks above 80."

      That's an extreme example, but a lot of professors hold the attitude that a 100% mark will never be given out, because that would imply your paper is absolutely perfect -- and since there's always more to add, no paper is perfect.
    • Um, no. (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Gareman ( 618650 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:54PM (#5182681) Homepage Journal
      Although essays and criticism may be subjective in the liberal arts, the "correct" subjective interpretation is that of the professor, not the student. Most traditional liberal arts professors could care less what a student thinks, as long as they use the same methods of criticism taught by the professor. This tends to lead to lots of regurgitation in liberal arts courses, spewing back what the professor says is relevant about a subject.

      Also, don't forget the social sciences, which are clearly more objective. I've had tough philosophy courses that I'm sure rival some higher engineering courses.

    • Ahh yes, but in engineering/science there is something called "partial credit" and that introduces gray areas. I may get the formula wrong, but if I apply the wrong formula in a consistent way, I can still receive credit...at least that's how it worked when I was an undergrad.

    • Bingo.

      I got 2 degrees from Lehigh: Mechanical Engineering and Philosophy. I was a grader for an intro to logic course, taught by the Phiul. Dept. One day I gave a couple of homework papers a 0 (grade of 0, 1, 2), and was reamed out by the students - "It's Philosophy, there ARE no wrong answers" - and the teacher - "They handed it in, so they can't get a 0."

      Problem is, it was a logic class - there ARE wrong answers. If it was taught by the math department, these students would have been laughed at. Since it was a Philosophy course, "opinion" mattered.
    • by chialea ( 8009 ) <chialea.gmail@com> on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @02:11PM (#5182866) Homepage
      >If an English major answers a test question on an interpretation of some poem, it's going to get a high grade because it's based on opinion and ther eis no "right" or "wrong" answer.

      That means it could just as well get a low answer for a non-objective reason. There are certainly skills involved in humanities subjects, even if the perception of them varies somewhat by the views of the observer.

      Drama programs are subjective as well, but you don't claim that everyone is a good actor becasue s/he gets up and mouths a few lines? There is a certain more-or-less shared standard involved, just as in writing.

      I've certainly had humanities profs who were mor than willing to say that they thought my essay was BS, or badly argued. If you haven't, you haven't been challenged enough, or you have robbed yourself through lack of interest, which is really a pity.

  • by TheRaven64 ( 641858 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:49PM (#5182612) Journal
    In the UK, grade inflation is a serious problem, because of the Government's obsession with league tables for eveything. If more people don't get top grades each year, then they think they look like failures. As a result, they've completely redesigned the A level (16-18) system to the extent that universities now find it completely useless as a measure of candidate ability.

    (Of course, in Soviet Russia, grades would have inflated YOU! - sorry, couldn't resist)
  • Depressing :( (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Some Bitch ( 645438 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:49PM (#5182613)
    Parents and students want high grades. Given that students are consumers of an educational product for which they pay dearly, I am expected to cater to their desires not just to be educated well but to receive a positive reward for their enrollment. So I don't give C's anymore, and neither do most of my colleagues. And I can easily imagine a time when I'll say the same thing about B's.

    That's the single most depressing thing I've read for years. If a student deserves a C or (God forbid even a D!) then they should get them. So what if they don't like it? Not everyone is cut out to be a nuclear physicist or a genius reporter! Everyone is most definitely not created equal, at least in an academic sense. This is reducing higher education to the level of "Buy your degree online!" websites and devaluing the degrees of everyone who actually had to work for theirs.
  • by aziraphale ( 96251 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:49PM (#5182618)
    Can we moderate the post as 'Flamebait'?

    This kind of 'cos there's no right or wrong answers, humanities must be easy' crap is just illiterate carping.

    Liberal arts degrees are rated for scholarship and insight. Yes, grade inflation's a problem, but don't blame the subject matter.
  • by atubbs ( 72643 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:49PM (#5182620)
    Grade inflation is rampant in engineering too; don't get ahead of yourself. Here at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the engineering courses are just as affected by grade inflation as any liberal arts class. The only difference is that people assume that since the classes are stereotypically harder that the grading is difficult as well. You have to genuinely try to get below a B in most computer science course here, for example. The number of people failing classes is obviously inadequate, when you see how completely unprepared several students are once they reach upper-level courses and obviously have no command of the prerequisite material.
    • by Hays ( 409837 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @02:30PM (#5183038)
      Well, maybe at your school, but not at Georgia Tech. It really pains me to read about students at other schools getting this treatment, because it's ridiculously easy to fail out here. Heck about half my friends have.

      Our published 4 year graduation rate is 69 percent, which seems generous. Maybe it's easier outside the CS department. There are definitely a wide range of C's, D's, and F's given all the way up through third year classes in the CS department.

      I've TA'd for the intro class, and we definitely fit the bell curve on high C. I've struggled to get C's in some of my 3000 level classes, not because I'm an idiot, but because the classes were actually curved around middle C's (or slightly less, in two cases).

      And I end up having to defend my 3.6 GPA because other ridiculous schools won't even give out C's? That's so dishonest it should be criminal. I've just applied to grad school and I've already had people concerned about my GPA. I think every application needs to be stamped with the average GPA and standard deviation from your school, so that you can actually tell what those grades mean. My GPA gives me highest honors at graduation here, but might not be worth any honors at a joke school like Yale with a 99% four year graduation rate where you couldn't buy a failing grade.
  • by gpinzone ( 531794 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:50PM (#5182625) Homepage Journal
    Whatever you do, be sure to take ANY class taught by "Stuart Rojstaczer"! You'll get an "A"!
  • by dyj ( 590807 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:50PM (#5182635)
    because a real engineer like me gets A for engineering courses but B for humanities. ;)
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:50PM (#5182637)
    Science actually...from the Duke site:

    Name: Stuart Rojstaczer, Ph.D.
    Affiliation: faculty
    Title: Associate Professor
    Department: NSOE & Earth Sci - Earth & Ocean Sciences
    Department: Civil & Enviro Engineering

    Just some food for thought...
  • by mcgintech ( 583056 ) <feedbackNO@SPAMmcgintech.com> on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:51PM (#5182642) Homepage
    I got a Bachelors in Mech. Engineering (1998) from the University of Toledo and when I was in school, my profs gave out PLENTY of C's. However if they hadn't curved the grades, everyone would have failed...their standards were so high no one could pass the test. I regularly got a 40% which turned out to be the highest grade in the class and received an A after the curve.

    Grading schemes are crazy. Half the time the prof who didn't speak much English, would put things on the test which no one even heard of...I can't tell you how many times we all wanted to blow up the Engineering building after exams!

    • by chialea ( 8009 ) <chialea.gmail@com> on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @02:03PM (#5182784) Homepage
      > I regularly got a 40% which turned out to be the highest grade in the class and received an A after the curve.

      In an abstract algebra class I got a D- on an exam. It was the third-highest grade in the class. That's exactly three of us who didn't flunk. If Berkeley didn't get so pissed when profs flunk then entire class, I know a few who would be happy to.

      However, schools vary as well as professors. I find it most informative to determine the average grade, since most classes are curved either up or down (as to whether that's an ethical practice, that's a different conversation). Berkeley EECS curved to about a B-/C+. That used to be a C. Other schools are worse.

      It's kindofa pity, and somewhat counteracted by having people who know the reputation of the school. Grad school admissions, for example, weight a B+ from Berkeley differently from one from Stanford, one from MIT, or one from Harvey Mudd. I think it's the industry people who are involved in the hiring process that are putting a skew into the pressures, as well as parents -- have to get something for that investment, after all!

    • I concur wholeheartedly with this assesment. Gotta love thermodynamics midterms where 11/50 gets you a B+
    • by mph ( 7675 ) <mph@freebsd.org> on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @02:28PM (#5183012)
      However if they hadn't curved the grades, everyone would have failed...their standards were so high no one could pass the test. I regularly got a 40% which turned out to be the highest grade in the class and received an A after the curve.
      That's how it should be. If 50% of the material on test is easy enough that everyone gets it right, then why bother putting it on the test? Spend the time testing the hardest stuff, to better discriminate which students really know their stuff. It's all about dynamic range! This 90% for an A, 80% for a B, system is arbitrary garbage, and I doubt any of my physics classes (after my freshman year) were graded that way.

      And, hey, some things are just hard and 40% is a good success rate. Taking batting a baseball, for example!

    • by (trb001) ( 224998 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @02:30PM (#5183034) Homepage
      Two stories...

      First, my high school had two physics teachers. Each of them designed tests separately for their individual classes. When their tests were given out to the students, they also gave a test to the other teacher. The tests were curved so that the teacher who took the test got a 100% (ie, if he got an 87%, a 13 point curve was given). Kinda fair standard, we all though, until we realized that both teachers had doctorates and should probably be acing entry level physics tests...

      My favorite tests, though, had to be while I was taking Digital Design during my sophmore computer engineering curriculum (Virginia Tech, btw). We had a professor who failed, overall, 52% of his students the semester I was in his class. I got a 15% on one test and it was "only" a D (I passed the class with a B, btw).

      I don't get this grade inflation thing that humanities students have going for them. Engineers fail out constantly, and not because they aren't smart or don't work, it just happens. People in humanities should be reminded what grading curves were used for...you had to be average to above average to pass. If teacher's graded on a 'true' bell curve, I think it's something like 25% of the class gets a D or below. Now, I never had teachers that were that cruel, but did, if they curved at all, curve up to a bell (ie, the median grade received was a 75%/C). It was fair, and grade distribution seemed pretty good each semester (until we got to 4th year classes, people routinely failed).

  • by gpinzone ( 531794 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:54PM (#5182671) Homepage Journal
    One sneaky trick some universities tried to do was grade on a 5.0 scale rather than 4.0. I've never gone to a school that had this kind of grading scale, but I remember reading about all the disclaimers when transfering your grades from one university to another. So, while colleges wouldn't count your B average as an A, I seriously doubt an employeer would know the difference.
  • Sad story... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by FatRatBastard ( 7583 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:54PM (#5182676) Homepage
    This happens everywhere and I'm sure for different reasons. My dad told me of a frightning story he had last year:

    My father teaches middle school and had one student who was good and got an honest to goodness B in her class (History I believe). Needless to say when the report card showed up the parents went nuts. Had a meeting with my father and demanded the child get an A (their excuse, top colleges were already looking at her and this would mess up her chances at going to them... RIIIIIGHT). My father politely declined, stating that the grading was fair, the girl deserved a B and that the B wasn't anything to be ashamed of.

    Not good enough. Parents went to the vice principal with the same story. The vice principal had looked at my dad's books, found them fair, sided with my dad.

    Not good enough. Parents went to the pricipal with the same story. Principal buckled (without even looking at any of the girls work) and told my dad to curve EVERYONE's grade in his class so that the girl got an A.

    I'm sure there are pressures from parents, students and school boards to keep the aformentioned happy (and thus paying tuition), but there's a point where you ruin your reputation as a well respected learning institution.
    • by kooshball ( 25032 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @02:40PM (#5183136)
      When I was in grad school at Columbia, I taught one of the undergrad Microeconomics courses for a few semesters. All of the students griped about the fact that I graded against a B average instead of the B+/A- average that was common in the economics department.

      But nothing topped the reaction of one of the students I had given a D to. First he came and pleaded with me. Then, he came and basically threatened me. When I still refused to change his grade, his parents got involved and contacted the head of the department. He refused to overrule me since my grading formula was very objective.

      After that, they went to the dean of the school and tried to have me brought before the faculty senate on charges of bias against members of the football team. When that didn't go anywhere, they tried to wear the department down by calling a few times a week to complain. The mother's phone calls became a running joke around the department.

      Things finally came to an end when a work-study in the department answered one of her calls and told her "I know your son. He never studies and totally deserved that grade". She was so embarassed that she never called back again!
  • grades (Score:4, Funny)

    by bananaape ( 542919 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:54PM (#5182677)
    I want to go to one of those schools. I'm tired of working for my Bs.
  • by AlinuxNCSU ( 589202 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:54PM (#5182680)

    As a philosophy major and a computer engineering major (yes, I'm strange), I can assure you that your rant isn't quite justified. Just because humanities courses don't have discrete answers to many problems does not mean make them any easier.

    It varies from teacher to teacher, in any course, whether engineering or otherwise. I've had professors in philosophy classes who had no qualms giving out C's and D's on papers. I've had EE profs that curved grades so that the majority of the class easily broke 85%.

    Sure, there are weed-out courses. Sure some classes are tough. However, I would agree that, on a general level, grade inflation is a problem. Maybe it's to make up for the complete lack in teaching skill that we students (who are paying big bucks for our education), are finally starting to complain about.

  • Self Esteem? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Maeryk ( 87865 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:55PM (#5182689) Journal
    I suspect it is (now anyway, as opposed to say, vietnam era) an outgrowth of the way middle and high-schools function.

    My son is currently in fourth, going to fifth grade next year. (School change.. lower to middle) and he has "learned" that he doesnt really need to take in his homework, complete his assignments on time, etc, simply because the way this lower school runs, it is next to impossibe to fail. (well, except for the inanely subjective questions they keep asking in written assignments.. like "Why do you think the hippo in the picture is sad" and they answer they want is "because he is brown, not gray" and the answer you give is "because his land is being taken by slash and burn agriculture" and it gets marked wrong.. "). But his teachers let him finish (or totally re-do) his work in class. THey even go so far as to totally not-count homework in the total grade.

    But next year, he will be in a school with no such qualms about failing people. They have pretty much taught him to slack because "someone else" will do it. (Either in his in-class study group, or his parents, after I or my ex-wife get the threatening letter sent home by the school, aimed at us, not him).

    He's screwed next year, right? Wrong. In this school, kids cant be in "special" (remedial, rather than short-bus special) education for just not studying.. they have to be in the class with all the other kids. Now, my son is not stupid.. he just hates doing homework. But he is going to be stuck in a class with a bunch of kids equally intelligent, but who do their work and shouldnt be held back due to people like my kid.

    This extrapolates itself to the real world.. the guy at work who doesnt do his work, because he knows someone will pick up the slack. The kid in college who is there on a grant or scholarship, but sleeps through classes and passes anyway.. etc.

    Grade inflation exists because no-one is willing to tell Johnny to get off his ass and actually WORK because he is dragging everyone else down with him. And when you have parents shelling out 100 grand for an education, they certainly dont want to hear that Johnny doesnt want to do his work either.. its pervasive, and it sucks, but until schools get straightened out so that the kids actual education is the important part, rather than placement test scores, SAT percentages per school, or sports teams.. its going to continue.

    • by haplo21112 ( 184264 ) <haplo@epi t h n a .com> on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @02:10PM (#5182859) Homepage
      ...you know how your kid is behaving, and you let him get away with it...your the problem not the school...its your job as a parent to make sure your kid has all his homework done everyday...not the school's...if you let your kid get away with that behavior your just setting him up for the big fall later on...good study habits need to start early.
      I'll grant you the school should also be giving him and automatic F if the homework isn't done when its supposed to be.
      In his own defense if he does well in the class without doing homework, maybe he doesn't need too...but then again perhaps he isn't challenged and belongs in a higher level class...I've always firmly believed any student that gets C's all the time might be because they don't care and are bored, make things harder, but by the same token stright A's mean the same thing...schools should aim for C's, NOT A's. C's mean the Kid is in the proper difficulty environment, if you can make it harder and they still get C's then you have done the right thing. A's mean its too damn easy...
    • by unicron ( 20286 ) <unicron@LIONthcnet.net minus cat> on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @02:18PM (#5182934) Homepage
      Skinner: Superintendent Chalmers, welcome!
      Chalmers: [dryly] Hello, Seymour.
      Skinner: So, what's the word down at One School Board Plaza?
      Chalmers: We're dropping the geography requirement. The children weren't testing well. It's proving to be an embarrassment.
      Skinner: Very good. Back to the three R's.
      Chalmers: Two R's, come October.
  • by eunos94 ( 254614 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:55PM (#5182692)
    You know, after having been in college for WAY too long, I've had my share of both natural sci, social sci, liberal arts, performing arts and technical classes. I've seen grade inflation in *every* field and engineering is NOT exempt from this. This paper may not study that or come to that conclusion, but trust me, after explaining to third year engineering students how to use a Texas Instruments calculater, the grade inflation is apparent.

    The thing that amazes me is that in almost every class I had that was a science field, at some point in time we had to explain the scientific method and how to write a research paper. How do you get into college and pass ANYTHING if you don't know those concepts?
  • old news (Score:3, Informative)

    by BigBir3d ( 454486 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:56PM (#5182701) Journal
    Seen here [boston.com] amongst other places.
  • by dlr03 ( 644019 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:56PM (#5182704)
    I remember reading once that (in (almost free) Canadian universities) there were 40% too many students. Some people just don't have the capacity of earning a university grade, but somehow the system adapted to them... lower expectations, lower work load, toughest chapters always left out... and now is even giving them higher and higher grades.

    Yes the capacity to teach university skills is disappearing fast and it has indeed tremendous effects.

  • Higher Cost (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Shadow Wrought ( 586631 ) <shadow...wrought@@@gmail...com> on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:56PM (#5182707) Homepage Journal
    When I was in school this seemed to be most prevelant at the more expensive institutions. Daddy ain't paying $20k a year to have Buffy and Chadworth making F's.

    I have to use other means to get them to learn: I have to cajole, to gently persuade.

    How sad that professors have to con kids into doing work. If you don't want to do it, fine- just don't expect to get rewarded.

  • My observations (Score:4, Informative)

    by Mtn_Dewd ( 15169 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:57PM (#5182712) Homepage Journal
    I currently am enrolled at the University of Washington. Having been here a few years, I've noticed a few things about college grading systems.

    1) Hard science courses are definitely more strictly graded than more subjective courses, such as English, Psychology, Philosophy, Sociology (insert next humanity here). This is mostly due to the fact that if you take an objective test in Math, Physics, or Mechanical Engineering you have little room for subjective interpretation. If you got it right, it's right, if not, it's wrong. In English, though, teachers can be afraid of giving out a C, and can consequently say "While that paper is probably C work, I can justifiably give a B with no one noticing"

    2) Schools that grade on the A,B,C,D,F scale seem more prone to grade inflation than the system that the University of Washington and a few other schools have. In our system, your grade is exactly mirrored based on a numerical system of distribution. For example, if I got a low A in my Chemisty course, I will get a 3.5 on my transcript, not an A. This prevents everything from being categorized to four or five letter grades. This reflects everything inbetween. There are many times that I wish I had the letter grading system, because my low A's or B's would not be a 2.6 and 3.5, but instead an B and a A, which would be equivalent to a 3.0 and a 4.0 respectively.

    Anyhow, those are my two bits.
  • my experience (Score:3, Insightful)

    by s20451 ( 410424 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:58PM (#5182722) Journal

    Perhaps it is because people's lives hang in the balance when they interact with the products and structures designed by science/engineering students.

    Well, I don't know about that. It's always dangerous to make comparisons between graded work at university and actual work in the real world ... after all, when you design a bridge, they give you more than three hours to do it, and they let you talk to other engineers, unlike in an exam.

    It's a lot easier to justify a D in engineering than it is to justify it in the humanities, because in engineering we can always fall back on the fact that the answer is wrong -- not much room for interpretation. The flip side of this is that it's a lot easier to get 100% on an engineering exam than on a history paper. I've found that the mark spread in my engineering courses is quite broad, with people scoring anywhere in the range from below 50% all the way up to the keeners at 100%. Humanities marks may be inflated, but they all seem to fall in a narrow range from C+ to A-.

    Furthermore, since engineering is a professional degree program (meaning it's usually the student's final degree, and not a springboard to other programs, like law or medicine), there is less temptation for students to whine for marks, although it still happens to some extent.

    As a teaching assistant I have had to mark my share of brutal engineering exams (which, incidentally, are no more fun to mark than they are to write). The philosophy seems to be that an easy exam results in a class where most people score very well, since the correct answers can be easily obtained, which doesn't give a good indication of knowledge. A hard exam will sort out the good students from the bad students, and if too many fail it can always be belled up later. Sort of a "kill-em-all" attitude.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:58PM (#5182723)
    Posting anonymously, for obvious reasons.

    Recent undergrad course I taught at Duke had this breakdown:
    A: 11%
    B: 57%
    C: 20%
    D: 11%
    I do not think, but haven't checked, that my previous section of this course was much different. This is a normal course, about middle of a student's career at Duke.

    The real stumbling block for most students is a so-called "C-wall" course. If you don't get a C or better, you can't move forward in your curriculum, so a C is effectively an F in that course. It seems to me that the basic tension is between a standard like that and a grading system that is consistent across all courses and curricula.

    The really surprising thing to me was a grad course I recently taught. The undergrad students were amazing compared to some of the graduate students. The undergrads are clearly some of the best students I've ever seen while the grad students are potentially from other schools for which the environment wasn't nearly so exacting. If all I ever saw was those kids, the ones that had plowed through Duke's undergrad curriculum and were taking grad courses until they graduated, I'd probably be accused of grade inflation too. (Many of them did A-grade work.)
  • GPA ranges (Score:3, Informative)

    by Drew4president ( 637991 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:58PM (#5182726)
    At the college I just graduate from, each class had a GPA range that the teacher was suppose to follow. The average grade for most classes was around a 3.2. But this didn't include anyone who dropped the class because they were failing.

    Also, the school offered a database of each professor and course that listed corresponding grades. So a student could see which professors gave higher grades before they took a class. You could also see the average GPA of students who took the class in previous semesters.

    I think the problem of grade inflation might be worse at ivy league/private schools not large state colleges.

  • by ajhenley ( 150248 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @01:59PM (#5182732)
    I have heard that it is true that engineering is graded much harder than other disciplines even in the same school, but in MIS, that is not true.
    I recently taught two semesters at my local college and you would have thought that I suggested bayonetting baby girls the way the students bitched when I promised I would fail anyone who did not submit a final project.
    I was later taken aside by the departmental chair and told that my role was to help the students succeed, and his vision was of a department where every student got at least a B in every class, because recruiters don't want to come to a school with a 2.5 average GPA.

    I tried to explain to him that programming is not basket weaving, that not everyone could get it, and that I didn't know if I could respect any IT/IS program that wasn't flunking at least a certain percentage of their students in some of the core classes. (I mean really, even if everyone there is really bright, then you should raise the bar so that you can GASP! _challenge_ the students.) Needless to say, although I received the highest teacher evaluation of any in the department that year, I no longer teach there.
  • by geekoid ( 135745 ) <dadinportland&yahoo,com> on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @02:01PM (#5182764) Homepage Journal
    People who think this is wrong, we'll label those the "They didn't do that for me when I went to school" group

    then there are people who think this is natural evolution that is needed for the students to be successful in the market place. We'll label those the "I just started college, and please God, let them inflate my grade" group.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @02:03PM (#5182781)
    ...that "hard sciences" means difficult.

    The "hard" sciences are hard only in the fact that they are deterministic. The same math problem will always have the same solution. Proofs can vary, true, but there is generally a "best" proof (whichever is the most parsimonious). Computers are deterministic as well.

    In social sciences, well, things aren't so certain. And in liberal arts in general things are even more up in the air: interpretations of music and art vary dramatically, etc. etc. etc...

    So which is more difficult?

    The correct answer is *neither*. Some people may find one easier then the other: judging by the general slant of this site, I'd say most people who end up reading this comment are individually more talented with the "hard" sciences. There are people who are better at the other sciences as well.

    Sure, specific schools may suffer from grade inflation more in one department than another, and yes engineers have a helluva course load, but engineering is by no means inherently more difficult then studying music or psychology. It's just different.
  • by ubiquitin ( 28396 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @02:04PM (#5182787) Homepage Journal
    Thomas Aquinas College [thomasaquinas.edu] is where learning occurs by discussion method, over the subjects covered in the Great Books [thomasaquinas.edu]. This is a true humanities program (St. John's College [sjcsf.edu] in Maryland and Santa Fe is similar.) and grades at these schools are not inflated.

    Most humanities programs are a waste of time. My advice is that if you want to be an astute student of human nature, and indeed a wiser man, you should make every effort to pursue what the greatest minds have written. Learn from Aristotle, Plato, Euclid, Pascal, Darwin, Newton, Einstein, and Watson 'n Crick etc. yourself or better yet, with others who similarly share your dedication to taking the liberal arts seriously.
  • by celnick ( 78658 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @02:04PM (#5182794) Homepage
    I am currently a freshman at Duke and can attest to the fact that there is not grade inflation of any type. In my humanities classes they give out D's, F's and whatever else happens to be earned. First year calculus is the most failed class at the University.

    Barring the fact that there have been a slew of articles both at duke and about it published in various newspapers, its still easy to see why any such claim is wrong. In this day and age it is getting harder and harder to get into the "good" colleges. Duke is ranked as the number 4 national university in the country. So, the people applying and gettiing into Duke are very bright, very qualified, motivated students. These students go into classes and EARN high grades. They are getting a B+ at Duke when they could easily goto a top teir national public university and earn an A.

    The people who would be earning the lesser grades aren't even attending Duke anymore. The travesty is that some people who work hard, do great work and have earned a high grade are sometimes forced to fail a class because their teacher has been accused of grade inflation and must now enact some arbitrary grading system.

    I will not deny that some professors inflate their grades and some departments inflate their grades. Other professors deflate grades, make arbitrary curves, or assign nonsensical course material to get a curve more to their liking.

    Here at Duke, I am an Econ/Physics double major, working my ass off. Some jaded professor not even working at Duke currently writes an article for the washington post and we're all supposed to take note? He doesn't teach at Duke, doesnt know whats going on there. We have more important issues, like rising tuition, an administration out to destroy social life on campus, and a certain department having a terrorist come and speak on campus. We don't need to worry about the fact that really smart people are working hard and getting good grades.
    • by waxmop ( 195319 ) <waxmop@overlook. ... t minus caffeine> on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @02:36PM (#5183097)

      here it is, folks: these private-school elitist types think they're smarter than us lowlifes that only went to state schools.

      They are getting a B+ at Duke when they could easily goto a top teir national public university and earn an A.

      i'd be offended by this comment if i hadn't met so many morons that had paid ten times as much as i did for my degree, and yet hadn't really gotten anything for the expense except for membership into a bunch of secret handshake clubs. you're not any smarter, and you might have been struggling for that same B+ no matter where you took intro to calculus.

      finally, this was just confusing:

      I am currently a freshman at Duke and can attest to the fact that there is not grade inflation of any type.

      and then later:

      I will not deny that some professors inflate their grades and some departments inflate their grades.

      well, which is it?

    • by ataube59 ( 641549 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @03:09PM (#5183396)
      To comeback with another prospective from Duke:
      I am a senior at Duke...double major Chemistry and Math, what most people would say are not the easiest majors in the world. I guarantee that the author of the Wash Post article is correct...there is grade inflation at Duke.

      In many of my classes (yes, sorry to say predominantely humanities) grades have been absurd. It takes an EFFORT to get a grade lower than a B in the vast majority of classes at Duke. This holds even in the hard sciences. To say that first year calculus is the most failed course on campus may be true...but the failure rate is still exceedingly small...i would estimate below 2%.

      The people I do know that have done poorly in classes (Cs, Ds, Fs) openly admit they never went to or did any work for the class. I know people who have intentionally missed finals and still gotten Bs!!!!

      After my four years here, I have never once felt like a teacher is grading unfairly to counteract grade inflation, in the humanities or otherwise. I am not saying Duke is a joke; it requires a significant amount of work to get an A in many classes. However, it is almost impossible to do worse than a B-.

      As an interesting sidenote, Professor Rojstaczer, while at Duke, was a professor in the Nicholas School of the Environment. It is well known on campus that the Nicholas School is very easy (not to the level of sociology, but close).
  • by sg3000 ( 87992 ) <sg_public@@@mac...com> on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @02:06PM (#5182816)
    I went to The University of Texas at Austin, and in the electrical engineering program there was little room for the grade inflation the author talks about. I think every single course was graded on a curve. To get an A, your grade had to be the class average plus the standard deviation. To get a B, your grade had to be the class average plus half the standard deviation. And so on. This made it a lot harder to grades to be inflated.

    My wife teaches biology at a local community college, and she said that many of her students wouldn't put up with the system I had to have in college. The problem is, for many people today getting anything less than A is unsatisfactory because high grades are so important (rather than actually mastering the material).

    There are "A" students who cram before tests, get old tests and memorize them, and hound the professor for higher grades, and there are "A" students that know the material so well, they could actually teach the class. In a perfect world, the former would get a B or C, and the latter would get the A.
  • by Corvaith ( 538529 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @02:07PM (#5182825) Homepage
    And I've noticed one thing about a lot of people at my (large, public) University.

    1. We're allowed to drop classes up until almost mid-semester. Guess what? A lot of people will stay in, fail the first two tests, then drop. They don't get a failing grade because they aren't there, in the end, to *get* an overall grade.

    2. I see plenty of people getting C's. Maybe not necessarily plenty with D's and F's--see the above, most of the ones who can't do it end up dropping--but C's are common, at least from where I'm standing.

    3. Our instructors, anyway, always set the grading scale in the syllabus. It's usually pretty normal. Sometimes a little skewed to give people a little more room to pass with a C, but some of them require a full 95% or better to get a full A. If people do 'too well', it's the material that's the problem, not the grading itself.

    4. People who are C or lesser students do not necessarily stay in college, period, much less in one class. They also generally are not going to Duke. (We're excepting sports players, here, as a general thing. I won't even go into that.) You see a lot of them in the low-level classes, but if you're looking at an Honors English Composition class like I had last semester, no, it's *not* going to be a proper curve by a long shot. The people who are there are there because they're good.

    It's a matter of money. When you're paying for school, no, you're *not* going to be happy to get a D or an F. The solution among my classmates is to either not *take* the courses they don't think they can manage well in... or to drop so that, if they still have to pay, at least they aren't destroying their GPA over it, which can lead to getting kicked out of their program entirely.

    At a place like Duke, does it even occur to this guy that he's not *getting* the students who really are complete academic failures? That he doesn't *see* the ones who are completely incapable of writing a comprehensible paper, the ones who can't find a standard deviation in statistics even when handed a calculator that does it for them?

    I suspect if he saw some of the work *I've* seen from the classmates who later drop, he'd start understanding it more. Maybe they're lackluster in terms of attendance and participation, but I suspect *his* students are, overall, intelligent and competant.

    As far as tech vs. everyone else? I don't know why things would be different. It may have more to do with job-market competition than anything else. If you start looking at humanities majors who're looking to go to the doctoral level and want to get into good grad schools, you start to see the same level of perfectionism, I bet. ...says the girl who almost threw a fit last semester over her one A-.
  • by freddyfred89 ( 591786 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @02:11PM (#5182869)
    I'm a faculty member in the social sciences. The dirty secret behind grade inflation is that it is a direct result of the emphasis placed on student evaluations of teaching by a department. One of the easiest ways to get high evaluations is by loosening grading standards. In a department which places a significant weight on student evaluations, individual faculty members will often achieve high evaluations by passing out high grades. The reason for high evaluations is rarely investigated in such departments, those who receive strong student evaluations are simply praised as effective teachers. My experience suggests that natural sciences and engineering departments rarely place a high weight on student evaluations (they're far more interested in research grant success of individual faculty, i. e. outside $$$$$). As a result, faculty in such disciplines don't "buy" high student evals with high grades. They don't need to. I know this sounds a bit cynical, but I think this is how this stuff works.
  • Oh my aching head (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Fished ( 574624 ) <amphigory@NOsPam.gmail.com> on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @02:13PM (#5182883)
    At one point, I applied to Duke Divinity School. Short form: I was rejected for "academic concerns". This despite three years of a perfect 4.0 GPA at small, but credible, college. Reading this article, I begin to see what the issue is. The divinity school had no way to evaluate my performance as better than average because of the tendency to give A's away. What ticks me off? There's a guy down the row from me at the school I'm now going to who WAS accepted at Duke -- and I run academic circles around him.

    I'm afraid that the net effect of grade inflation will be to further stratify higher education -- leading to a situation in which one can no longer prove oneself and move up.

  • Thanks, Ben Marsh! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by binaryfeed ( 225333 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @02:30PM (#5183036) Homepage
    I went to Bucknell University [bucknell.edu]. My senior year, I took a class with a guy named Ben Marsh. It was a physical geography course. On the first day of class, he walks in, goes up to the board and draws a gigantic bell-shape. On the left side of it, he writes 'F'. On the right side of it, he writes 'A'. He turns to the class and says, "I don't believe in grade inflation. I don't curve. Most of you will get Cs. A few will get Ds or Bs. Even fewer of you will fail or get an A. If you don't want a C, leave my class now, because you'll probably get one. The class was HARD. He was a really cool professor, though, and I've had the utmost respect for him ever since that day.
  • by Orp ( 6583 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @02:36PM (#5183093) Homepage
    I'm a college professor of meteorology, this is my third year teaching. I have given out a small amount of D's and F's and C's but mostly B's and A's. Truth is, I really feel, for the most part, that students got the grades they deserved. The author of the Post article is being a wuss by giving out the grades that don't rock the boat. Personally, I don't give a shit if a student flunks if they don't put an effort into the class. Without exception the students that have done poorly in my classes have not tried. The ones that have tried have gotten, at the very least, a C.

    I've tried different approaches to grading. First there is the numerical scale where you say "94-100 is an A. 93.434 will be a B (or A- or whatever), PERIOD." Tough luck if you're on the border. I do not use this method of grading.

    There is the Curve which I think which is being abused a lot with the grade inflation. With the Curve I create a histogram and draw lines in between the "peaks" if they exist at all. This is a very squishy form of grading. Usually I end up assigning students B's who have grades greater than, say, 78% with this method... kind of like 90/80/70/60 only shifted over a bit to the left. That's the way it typically pans out in my classes.

    I was extremely pleased with my Intro Meteorology students last semester. It was a class full of students who participated in class and were interested. They showd up for class almost every lecture - even at the end of the semester when classes usually dwindle in size, I was getting 90% attendance. Nobody scored below a B- in that class and that was deserved . I was proud to give those grades out.

    I think to be fair, you have to take the attitude that grades are earned, not given out. When a teacher uses this attitude I think fairer grading occurs. And unless you use the strict numerical scale, grading is subjective (and of course partial credit ends up making this method subjective).

    Leigh Orf

    Assistant Professor of Atmospheric Sciences

    Asheville, NC

    soon to be teaching at Central Michigan Univeristy
  • by jellisky ( 211018 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @02:43PM (#5183170) Journal
    ... sometimes there are bad.

    In my undergraduate institution (Valparaiso University), there were a good number of C's and lower given out, especially in the lower level science classes. Yes, there were often more A's and B's given out, but those were because the distribution tended to be skewed to a majority doing well. (Bimodal distributions were common, so the top group got A's and B's while the other got lower grades.) And yes, in some of the higher level classes, not a single C or lower was given out, even in math classes.

    Grading systems SHOULD be subjective in nature. It's an argument of a professor trying to say how good a student is in that particular subject.

    I consider all the grades I've gotten to be fair. I've considered the grades that friends of mine have gotten in the same class to be fair. Yes, even in the classes without a single C, those were fair. In those cases, the class often worked together... we were all about the same in our understanding and comprehension of the subject matter. There were some that were a little better and some that were a little worse, but many times it was tough to say that one of us was truly better than the others. So, it only made sense that we all got about the same grades; I think the final distribution was 1 A-, 2 B+, 3 B, 1 B-.

    One thing that people forget is that in many majors in many schools, the students tend to be similar in their aptitude. It's due to the admissions tendencies of the school and the interests of the students. By the time you get to the higher-level classes, the only students taking them are the ones who tend to be good at the subject anyway. Is it really fair to give an F to that one B- student who answered most of the questions in class with a good understanding of the material, just a little less than the rest of us, just because the "lowest" student should be given an F?

    So, it only makes sense that sometimes (and frequently in higher-level classes) a classroom will be filled with students who all understand the material and show potential. A professor just can't toss out an F or D if people all seemingly understand the material and have obviously learned it. How did they fail?

    Then, you get to graduate schools like the one I'm in (Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University). It is understood that a C is almost never given out in a class here. Why?

    First, the graduate school has this policy that any graduate student must hold a 3.0 GPA at all times. Since our department pays for the students' tuitions, we represent an investment for them. So, unless there is a reason to give out a C (like an obviously sub-par student), it is foolish to give out those low grades since it ends up being a waste of money for the department. They've put money into each of us, so why should they disqualify us by holding the "average student = C" mantra over us? It makes no sense because of that silly graduate school 3.0 GPA policy.

    That doesn't mean that C's aren't given out. But they're all about sending messages to the student... "Are you sure you should be doing this kind of work?" Since the department pays for the students to take classes (and our advisors pay us off their research grants to do research also), they expect us to pass those classes. B's are now the "pass" grade, while A's are the "good" grade. C's (and D's) are the "message" grades. It's just shifting everything up to make sure that any money spent on students isn't wasted.

    This whole "story" smells of nothing but a reporter trying to make a story out of a subject that looks simple, but is SO much more complex than it looks. In other words, this reporter needs to do more research into the real reasons WHY grades seem inflated. Frequently, in a case-by-case basis, there are good reasons for every grade that is given out. People need to remember that the "average student = C" idea isn't bad, but that "average" is a subjective idea.

  • by Aquitaine ( 102097 ) <samNO@SPAMiamsam.org> on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @03:04PM (#5183368) Homepage
    I graduated last year from an ivy league university with a BA. Most of my studies were in English, acting, or CS. Different types of grading in each one.

    I had about 30 credits of CS when I graduated, and all of it was with the same professor (fortunately for me). So I learned early on what he looked for, and it seemed quite fair. A lot of people have been saying 'in Engineering/math/physics it's RIGHT or WRONG and there is NO ROOM FOR ARGUMENT beyond a regular curve/standard deviation.' In a perfect class, this is true. Another CS professor who taught the same class that mine did (CS 100, Java Until You Can't Java Anymore) had a lot of in-class tests where you had to write out your java code by hand. My professor had those as well (required by the dept.) but he weighted them much less, and weighted our homework and projects much more, because he could tell from those things how much effort you were putting in and what you were getting out. So you could take these two identical courses -- same syllabus, books, assignments -- and perform precisely the same way, and get a higher grade in my class than you would have with the other professor's. Is this grade inflation? I don't think so. It's simply a different means of measuring a student's success.

    In all of my English courses, it came down to (surprise) paper writing. Some English courses like to take a history class approach and just see how many facts you memorized from each book/play/scroll you read that semester. I personally don't do well with the regurgitation method and lucked out because none of the courses I took had that, although several others did. It has already been pointed out by other posters that grading an English paper is subjective, but it's certainly not just opinion; it is often as easy to tell when someone has cobbled together an unsupported, juvenile argument as it is to tell when they've declared that 2+2=5. But like the CS grader, it's the weight that counts. I've had professors who would fail your paper if it had certain 'grade school' grammar and mechanical errors because he didn't feel that was appropriate for an ivy league institution. Others dismiss those unless they are really debilitating and give 99% of the weight to your arguments. Still others don't care about your arguments unless your conclusion is well done. Consequently, you will find English majors hanging out before grades are released who have absolutely no idea what they're going to get, while the Engineers are already either partying or packing their bags.

    Lastly, my acting courses are the best example of a 'huh?' approach. Talent-based classes such as acting (and singing and playing instruments, to a lesser degree) simply do not fit into the academic model of 72% versus 86%, et cetera. For my first three years, the theatre department had what I thought was a good method for evaluating your performance -- to progress into the next course, you had to audition, regardless of the grade you got. So your actual grade for the class was dependent on things like whether or not you studied the material (a lot of reading, and it was easy to tell who could talk about the technique and who couldn't), whether or not you'd spent appropriate time rehearsing outside of class, and your general preparedness for your final scenes. It's a fine line, though, but it's not terribly difficult to tell the difference between an actor who is completely unprepared and hasn't put in any work and an actor who simply may not be an excellet performer. The department's view was that you can't help how talented you are, but you can help how much you improve.

    During my last year, though, the theatre department came under fire for handing out a lot of As, because their system was working. People who didn't cut it or didn't care enough didn't make the audition into the high level workshops and classes. So in those higher level courses, you had small classes of people who really cared and were going to put in the work, so you had a lot of As. And having ninety-five percent of your class get an A apparently sets of alarms there, because my school was sensitive to the grade inflation that Harvard was doing (something like 80% of their graduates graduated with honors, as opposed to 10-20% of ours).

    I don't agree with professors who are afraid to give out Cs because it's 'not expected' any more than I agree with professors who fail their entire class. That's a sure sign of very poor course design and I am always glad when those professors go. I remember that I got a D on an English paper once, though, and it was one hell of a wake up call. I wouldn't want to have the writing technique that went into that reinforced with any mark of approval...
  • Back to the Future (Score:4, Interesting)

    by theCat ( 36907 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @03:36PM (#5183582) Journal
    I don't see this issue being a big deal. The idea of giving objective grades (as opposed to subjective evaluations) for higher education is a new idea in the big scheme of things, borrowed perhaps from primary education. It used to be (200 years ago and longer) that you debated your peers to show ability, disputed your professors instead of taking an exam, and then had to convince a review board that you knew your stuff to graduate, and after that you had to use your knowledge effectively and not just cite it on your resume on your way to the corner office. None of that was graded other than "well argued". I imagine there is nothing more terrifying than a half dozen old people glaring at you over their bifocals and asking you tough questions and barking at you when you faulter.

    So is life after the fall of objective grades a horror? The writer of this op-ed bit says that he is not sure he or his peers are up to the task of educating without tests and grades. I wonder what that really means? Does it mean that he is not ready to talk to students in small groups and engage them intellectually? That he is not ready to challenge each mind individually in a setting of peers? That he is not able to evaluate a student's progress just by knowing them as a person and their work as a whole?

    The factory method of teaching (which is what he is lamenting as it passes) had serious flaws. Students never really did buy the notion that periodic test scores and grades meant squat (and rampant cheating didn't help.) The factory method might have had its place in recent centuries when we needed so very many "learned" workers to support our exploding industrial revolution. But does that still hold? Does any of this matter now?

    If grades are dead then let them be buried. If students need a motivation to achieve, let the marketplace provide it as once it did, when a person of letters stood out on their talents and not their papers. The future belongs to the smart ones, and we can all tell who they are just by talking to them. And the rest? Back to the fields.
  • by Theovon ( 109752 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @03:40PM (#5183606)
    When I was in college, I found myself in classes with many other students that just did not understand the material well. Sure, plenty of them did--some naturally, some through hard study (a combination of both for me). But many of those students who were poor performers, either because they were lazy or their brains just weren't up to the task, were getting relatively high grades.

    On the plus side, it wasn't easy to go from a B to an A, but on the other side, it wasn't too hard to get a B. And many poor students were getting A's anyhow, somehow.

    Now that I've been out in the industry for 6 years, and my work history can speak for me, it doesn't bother me so much, but when I first got out of college, I was very frustrated that an employer couldn't distinguish my A's from someone else's.

    Inflating grades is bad for students and employers. It's bad for the students who ARE smart and willing to work, and it's bad for employers, because they can't use grades as a way to evaluate people they interview.
  • by meehawl ( 73285 ) <meehawl.spam@g[ ]l.com ['mai' in gap]> on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @05:12PM (#5184273) Homepage Journal
    Perhaps it is because people's lives hang in the balance when they interact with the products and structures designed by science/engineering students.

    Riiiiiight. So all those polsci and sociology and psychology and health policy people who go on to devise the social and political systems that deploy the resources in the institutions that care for you when you're sick, or regulate toxins in your environment, or create a legal and punishment system, or induce or alleviate recessions and monetary policy (and so on) are just pissing in the wind? I mean, what's the construction and regulation of the byzantine complexity of social economies compared with building a bridge or a new Linux kernel?
  • by javahacker ( 469605 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @05:23PM (#5184366)
    In engineering, if you screw up, at the very least it costs someone a (normally) substantial amount of money to fix the problem, or to pay the lawyers. At the other end of the spectrum, lots of people die (the bridge collapses, the airplane blows up, the submarine sinks). I think that professors in engineering schools take that into account when they assign grades.

    An engineer will tell you what the answer is, how accurate it is, and what assumptions were made in getting that answer. In the end, something gets built, and either works or not, entirely based on how closely the engineer understands the problem, and how effective he is at reaching a solution. For the problems that you work on in college, there is very little wiggle room on the correct answers.
    In few other professions will someone without many years of proven experience be given the kind of responsibilities that many engineers have to deal with. They would rather flunk you out than let you go forward without the skills you need, and the ability to apply those skills.

    Many people leave engineering in the first few years of their careers, and decide to follow another career path. This happens because they can't deal with the pressures of trying to solve the problem, within budget, on time, and working properly.
  • by Starky ( 236203 ) on Wednesday January 29, 2003 @06:50PM (#5185134)
    Grades in mathematics, physics, engineering, and the hard sciences are different because they are not subjective.

    When a student is asked to solve a differential equation or calculate the force being applied to an object, the student cannot fudge their way through the answer. They are either right or wrong. And a student who is wrong but told they are right will build bridges that fall down or airplanes that don't fly.

    And the objectivity goes both ways. If a grader arbitrarily gives a student an A because, say, the student is particularly attractive and flirtatious (I'm an academic and yes, this happens all the time), an outside reviewer can evaluate that student's answers and determine whether the grader was acting with integrity when they awarded the grade.

    In the social sciences, however, grades are much more subjective. The incentives are for the professor to award high grades and there is really no practical way for outside reviewers to challenge the grading policy with regards to, say, English papers.

    And when ill-equiped liberal arts students go out into the world, they typically become business types with equally amorphous and subjective performance measures. Rarely can someone objectively say that the company would have earned $1M more in profit because some suit didn't understand the Willa Cather's oblique phallic references.

    I have two BAs: One in a liberal arts field and one in a hard science. So I can say from experience that the amount of effort and intelligence required to successfully complete a liberal arts degree is far below that required to complete a technical degree.

    So although the liberal arts professors have little incentive to give bad grades and engineering students are probably bummed to compare their grades to their liberal arts brethren, when involved in a hiring process, I would give much more credit to an engineering student with As and Bs than a liberal arts graduate with straight As simply because the engineering grades are a credible signal of ability and determination.

"So why don't you make like a tree, and get outta here." -- Biff in "Back to the Future"