Thursday, June 22, 2006

Grade me... grade me, my friend

The NY Times's Samuel G. Friedman writes about grade deflation at Boston University:
Boston University officials six years ago began sending deans, chairs and individual instructors data comparing average grades in courses and departments. While some other universities do share such information with faculty members, Boston University's administrators went further in suggesting ideal distributions of grades, C's very much included, and in recommending departmental averages, with par near a B.
"These students are competing for admission to graduate school, for post-docs, for study abroad," said Jeffrey J. Henderson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "And to the extent G.P.A. is important, they say, we come out of B.U. and we have a lower grade point and no one can tell why. That is a legitimate concern."
When I taught a course on the American Novel at Black Sea "University" (I don't recall meeting any graduate students) here in Tbilisi, Georgia last fall, there was significant pressure on me not to fail any students, because then the students would switch to another school and the school was at only 50% of capacity as it was.

My experience in college regarding grades was split completely between my engineering courseload and my liberal arts courseload; the standard deviation of the grade distribution in the former was much greater than in the latter. In computer science, going through the motions would earn me a B, falling behind a bit would mean a C, and only with long hours and intense focus could I get an A, though I did get several A+s. The difference between, say, an A- and an A was extremely slight.

Not so in my experience in my other major, history. I found a B to be a breeze, and I agree with Larry Summers's view, at least as regards Columbia, that politically left-leaning courses tend to give generous grades--at least unless they are conducted by a real post-modernist megalomaniac like Gayatri Spivak. Getting a regular A, however, was incredibly difficult for me. The difference between an A- and an A was huge, and I often wished that there were more differentiation among higher scores. With the average GPA at Columbia College something around 3.4, there was much grade spectrum around 1.0-3.0 that was only lightly used. Meanwhile, friends at St. Andrew's College in Edinburgh were graded out of I think 15 points, with a par around 7; earning an 11 was impressive, a 13 was a seriously proud accomplishment, and rare 15s grew into college lore.

I briefly lived in Palo Alto with someone in charge of hiring for a software company during the dotcom boom. When he looked at resumes of graduating computer science studetns, he would toss out those with 3.6 averages with disdain but prize 3.8s as golden nuggets. I think it was a mistake to think that such a difference was meaningful, but what could he do?

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