Harvard’s Easy A’s

Dec 10 2013 @ 2:20pm

Grade Inflation Graphic

After Harvard revealed that the most commonly awarded grade there is an “A”, Conor defends the practice of grade inflation, at least at elite schools:

A rigorous system of inflation-free grading might benefit any graduate schools or employers interested in using the transcripts of applicants while evaluating them. But Harvard College shouldn’t tailor its grading system to fulfill their needs, and needn’t worry about its students being overlooked regardless of their grading approach. Being admitted to Harvard and graduating is itself a strong signal. There’s also the argument that grade inflation is unfair. Students who do exceptional work are given the very same “reward” as students who do mediocre work. But it’s wrong to conceive of grades as the reward for acquiring more knowledge than other people. The reward is coming away with a better education.

Eleanor Barkhorn pushes back:

Midway through my time at Princeton … the school adopted new grading standards. Starting my junior fall, professors could give out only a limited number of A-range grades. The change prompted lots of anxiety and indignation from the student body—and now, nine years later, it may be rolled back. But for me, “grade deflation” was a much-needed kick in the pants. I started reading more carefully, taking more diligent notes, developing relationships with my professors and their teaching assistants. I ended up learning a lot more and enjoying my classes in a much deeper way. Yes, hard-working students should be rewarded with good grades. But a very good way to inspire students to work hard in the first place is to make good grades worth something.

Yglesias thinks the problem is inflation of another kind:

Between 1990 and 2013, the size of the American population has grown 27 percent. The size of the Harvard freshman class has grown about zero percent. As measured by NAEP, the quality of the average American high school student has risen slightly during that period and the size and quality of the international applicant pool has grown enormously. With demand for a fixed supply of slots skyrocketing, you see a lot of inflationary dynamics. University spending per student is much higher at fancy private colleges than it was a generation ago. And it is entirely plausible that the median Harvard student today is as smart as a A-minus Harvard student from a generation ago. After all, the C-minus student of a generation ago would have very little chance of being admitted today. And that, rather than “grade inflation” is the problem. If you go back 40 years ago, nobody was saying “the big problem with Princeton is it’s not exclusive enough.” And yet over time top schools have failed to expand supply.

Also on the subject of grades, Alice Robb informs us that robots can now accurately score essay tests. She proposes nixing multiple-choice exams, which research suggests measure students’ understanding poorly:

A group of researchers, led by Elizabeth Beggrow at the Ohio State University, assessed science students’ understanding of key ideas about evolution using four methods: multiple-choice tests, human-scored written explanations, computer-scored written explanations, and clinical oral interviews. Clinical interviews—which allow professors to ask follow-up questions and engage students in dialogue—are considered ideal, but would be an impractical drain on teachers’ time; in this study, the clinical interviews lasted 14 minutes on average, and some took nearly half an hour. Machines, on the other hand, could generate a score in less than five seconds, though they took a few minutes to set up. The researchers “taught” the software to mark essays by feeding it examples of human-scored essays until it learned to recognize patterns in what the human scorers were looking for …

When Beggrow and her team analyzed the data, they found that professors’ and computers’ scores of students’ short essays were almost identical—the correlation was 0.96 to 1.

(Chart from a 2012 study (pdf) on grade inflation)