We dutifully filled out our teaching evaluations on time, and now we pay the price: a Christmas week spent endlessly refreshing our Academic History page [no, frosh—your report cards won’t be mailed home this year], frustratingly waiting for that one last professor to post our grades. It’s an end-of-semesterly tradition. This year, as you hit refresh on the ePortfolio, it might be worthwhile to consider the implications of that A—how rampant grade inflation factors into Wesleyan, into graduate school admissions, and into academia at large.
In 2004 Michael Bérubé, professor of literature at Penn State, famously memorably suggested one solution to grade inflation: colleges merely devise a system, complex but effective, by which “to account for each course’s degree of difficulty.” Here’s how:
Every professor, and every department, produces an average grade — an average for the professor over her career and an average for the discipline over the decades. And if colleges really wanted to clamp down on grade inflation, they could whisk it away statistically, simply by factoring those averages into each student’s G.P.A. Imagine that G.P.A.’s were calculated on a scale of 10 with the average grade, be it a B-minus or an A-minus, counted as a 5. The B-plus in chemical engineering, where the average grade is, say, C-plus, would be rewarded accordingly and assigned a value of 8; the B-plus in psychology, where the average grade might be just over B-plus, would be graded like an easy dive, adequately executed, and given a 4.7.
But this, Bérubé concedes, would be “confusing as hell.” And that same year, Princeton adopted a simpler but perhaps more controversial policy reducing A’s to no more than 35 percent of undergraduate grades. But elsewhere, at countless other top colleges—and yes, Wesleyan—inflation remained a problem.
Earlier this week, the New York Times examined recent efforts by prominent universities to combat grade inflation, focusing particularly on the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where:
Mr. Perrin now leads a committee that is working with the registrar on plans to add extra information — probably median grades, and perhaps more — to transcripts. In addition, they expect to post further statistics providing context online and give instructors data on how their grading compares with their colleagues’.
Though somewhat controversial, the tactic—and the guiding notion behind it, that further statistics on transcripts are necessary to supplement and contextualize the raw letter grades—is not new. And yes, Portland’s Reed “holy shit” College remains well ahead of the curve on this, too:
Dartmouth transcripts include median grades, along with the number of courses in which the student exceeded, equaled or came in lower than those medians. Columbia transcripts show the percentage of students in the course who earned an A.
At Reed College, transcripts are accompanied by an explanatory card. Last year’s graduating class had an average G.P.A. of 3.20, it says, and only 10 percent of the class graduated with a G.P.A. of 3.67 or higher.
“We also tell them that in 26 years, only 10 students have graduated with a perfect 4.0 average — and three of them were transfers who didn’t get all those grades at Reed,” said Nora McLaughlin, the registrar at Reed. “We wanted to put the grades at Reed in context to be sure that graduate schools, particularly professional schools where G.P.A. is very much an important factor, understand how capable our students are.”
It’s a compelling and pertinent article, and I’m especially curious for comments on this—whether or not inflation goes equally unchecked at Wes, whether we should adopt a similar policy of providing further statistics on transcripts, or even a solution more radical altogether. Spill.