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Grade inflation report sends signal to LA policy-makers

A new publication by the invaluable American Council for Trustees and Alumni hopefully will start a necessary debate on grading policies in Louisiana universities, especially as Gov. Bobby Jindal has indicated his desire to see university performance used as a benchmark for their funding.

ACTA notes grade inflation increasingly is becoming a problem in universities, something I have observed anecdotally in my 22 years of college teaching. Particularly resonant is the expectation that a ‘C’ no longer is viewed as average work, but as substandard. I have seen this taken to ridiculous lengths (more than one instructor I have known regularly gave 80-90 percent of classes grades of ‘A’) but it reaches travesty when, as the report notes, one institution has to tell its instructors to give no more than 35 percent of a class ‘A’ grades (my personal average is in the 12 percent range).

Part of the problem is attitudinal, both on the part of faculty members and students. Some of the former simply are lenient in the way they view grading, but in recent years probably more pressure has come from the latter. Particular to Louisiana, the Tuition Opportunity Program for Students that pays for in-state college tuition, one part of which is graduating with a decently-high grade point average which pressures high school teaches to inflate grades, builds up unrealistic expectations of grades for some students given their actual abilities that then carries over to college. Part of it also might be the larger creeping entitlement mentality found increasingly pervasively in the student population which dissociates performance from ability and links it to desire, which pressures college faculty members into giving higher grades.

Attitudes of the “clients” are difficult to change in the short term, but policy change short of quotas can deal effectively with this problem. Faculty members who respect standards and understand that a fair by firm grading policy can promote more and better learning may be able to resist blandishments by students to devalue the system, but when it hits their pocketbooks it may become an entirely different matter. For example, where I teach roughly 30 to 40 percent of the evaluation of a faculty member’s performance is done solely on scores on student evaluations, and research continually reaffirms that students who think they will get higher grades rate instructors more highly. These evaluations are used to dole out pay raises (which actually don’t come very often) so every incentive is created for instructors to inflate grades to improve evaluation scores in the hopes of bigger raises.

An example of what could be done to minimize these incentives is each discipline graduating students in a major field of study should have (where possible, and for most it is) administered a subject area test to its graduates who would be required to take it for graduation (but not have to attain any certain score on it). Then disciplines could be graded on how well prepared their graduates are and an overall university score developed for use in funding decisions. This creates rewards for rigor and excellence that the institution will want to enforce. (It also will create an extra expenditure, but those costs could be reasonably restricted by capping at five students per major test taking with those chosen by lottery.)

Therefore, if Jindal pursues his agenda of tying college funding to things like graduation rates, which obviously increase as do grades, he will have to recognize that as long as Louisiana public universities do not address the causes of grade inflation through policies that neither encourage it nor allow for pressure to produce it, that effort will not create more and better graduates that he sees as instrumental to economic development.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your suggestion could create real problems for LSU-S. If the system tried to create tests for subject areas, my suspicion is professors from LSU or Tech would end up writing the criteria and questions, straight out of their own textbooks and lectures. This could further marginalize our plucky university, and force you to teach what Tech thinks is most important, so I think it's a no go unless they would outsource to a private testing service.

It would be interesting, however, if such a thing caught on beyond Louisiana borders what with grade inflation being a problem everywhere. It seems like there would be some powerful interests in private universities opposing any move like this that could compare apples to apples the education someone would get at a public versus a private university. I only mention this because Obama took millions from university PACs, and they'd hate to take time away from their precious research money (hundreds of millions paid back his first month within the stimulus) to actually teach.