Monday, October 22, 2007

Grade Inflation

I desperately wish that there was a comprehensive survey of the difficulty of the curricula across Canadian and American schools. Desperately. This would be of enormous use to an almost infinite number of people if only such an index could be constructed without an equally large number of allegations of bias, errors, etc.

I discuss this topic because I was today convinced that grade inflation is a more than a very rare problem at Memorial. I would trust that at every school there's a few professors that lob softballs - a certain per-course instructor at MUN once taught a summer Money & Banking class, awarding a class average of 92%, thinking that good course evaluations from students were a way to tenure - but these incidents were always rare, and not something I'd ever been involved in.

It certainly wasn't a problem going through the ranks. Introductory English gives 6% of the class an A, every year, to within .2%. That is a mean, unjustifiable curve. But there's a standard enforced. What I have larger issues with is things like take-home midterms for statistics courses, marking schemes that involve 'best two out of three' midterm tests, and the dropping of marks when the class does poorly.

As I've progressed through the ranks, I'm beginning to see these instances proliferate. Maybe it doesn't matter, since the good students are motivated to learn anyway, and the poor students will never use the stuff they putatively learned. But seriously? It's a problem.

It's a problem when introductory texts (Perloff's Microeconomics) are being used for the third course in a microeconomics sequence. It's a problem when a mathematical statistics tests has five questions, three of which I could have done in Grade 10, two of which were actually testing the material we covered. (Class average: 90% on the first midterm, accompanied with the professor's exhortations that we should be able to do better on the final.)

But, alas, there's no real way to stop it. I want to be pushed. But as long as the majority don't, and that the quality of education remains not directly observable, it's something we have to live with.

NOTE: I think Memorial still does better, at times much better, than many/most universities, especially in certain subjects. I would argue that the economics department is not characterized by grade inflation, just a number of courses that aren't up to scratch, curriculum-wise, resulting in higher grades.

EDIT: Obviously, I'm biased here.

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