Grading: Is Honesty the Best Policy?

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When is an A not an A?

That's the question faculty and administrators at colleges across the country are wrestling with as they seek to bridge the grading gap between student expectations and teacher assessments.

"Professors or colleges that participate in grade inflation and deflation aren't helping students realize their true academic potential," said Harvey Mansfield, a professor of government at Harvard University.

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The problem has two sides: Students, who base their college academic expectations on high school success; and professors, who ultimately set and decide whether to adhere to higher grading standards.

Those standards can fluctuate, depending on a variety of factors. College professors, nonetheless, say they are under increasing pressures to purposely manipulate grades to reflect their own or their institution’s desired profile.

"It's pressure placed on professors to keep a respectable reputation within the university," Mansfield said. "If professors gave low grades, their course evaluations would be poor and they would expect to get more complaints from students and parents."

On the flipside, some professors report they've been encouraged to purposefully deflate, or lower grades in an effort to either show administrators they are tough graders or to dissuade students from taking certain courses.

Mansfield said the most egregious cases of grade manipulation — in this case inflation — take place at the nation’s prestigious Ivy League schools.

Half of Harvard undergraduates receive grades of A, or A-minus, Mansfield said.

"'A' means excellence and it is not possible for half the students at Harvard to be excellent," Mansfield said, adding that giving an ‘A’ when it isn’t earned is just false flattery.

Harvard can be known as, "hard to get in, easy once your there," Mansfield added.

George Kuh, chancellor’s professor of higher education at Indiana University-Bloomington, and the director of the National Survey of Student Engagement, disagrees with Mansfield.

Kuh thinks Ivy League grades are higher because students at these schools simply are smarter.

"You do have at the elite or the most highly selective institutions very well prepared students coming out of high school" Kuh said. "These students are going to do well in whatever setting they are.”

"Parents have to realize that some classes are harder than others, so an A in one subject may be just as impressive as a B in another," said Del Hun, vice president of instructions for the University of Georgia.

"It's unrealistic to expect all first-year students to get the same grades they had in secondary school ... but most of these students do catch up," Kuh said. "It is therefore important for parents to realize that first-year grades, in particular, may not be what they're expecting."

Because grades are weighted so heavily in the eyes of students, parents, grad schools and other corners, "they are the most accessible indicators of undergraduate academic performance, and are often subject to intense public arguments about whether students are being judged more leniently than in the past," Clifford Adelman, a senior research analyst for the U.S. Department of Education, wrote in a 2002 study of grading policies.

"Americans are fascinated by grades in education, almost as fascinated as by indicators of athletic performance in the sports section or various market averages in the business section," Adelman said. "Education should be teaching you the truth, not making you feel good," which is something grade inflation has been doing to those affected, he added.

Mansfield said he gives his students two sets of grades: The first appears on the transcript, while the other is the true grade he thinks the student deserved. This way, students can realize the true score for their performance level, he said. At the same time, Mansfield is aware that professors are under pressure to get their students to perform well and that their reputations are at stake if they are known to give out bad grades.

Father Peter Guerin, a former dean of St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., agreed that "there is great pressure on non-tenured faculty who rely on student evaluations to receive potential tenure."

"Many parents may view universities as a consumer market in which their in a way paying for the diploma," Guerin continued, adding that "students who attend class on a regular basis and are paying tuition feel that they should be receiving that A, even if they have not deserved it."

Some professors and administrators believe that inflating grades makes it harder for students to realize their academic strengths and weaknesses and may encourage students to take classes based on grade expectation. The practice also makes it harder for parents and students to determine whether or not the grade was earned.

One way to fight the practice of inflation is "to join the administration and faculty and mend them into a working force against grade inflation," said Guerin.

At St. Anselm, a curriculum committee was set up in 1980 to meet with the academic dean and review the grading polices on a monthly basis.

The Problem With Math and Science

Students in the sciences are the ones most likely to face grade deflation, Mansfield said.

"Science is harder and grades in the sciences generally lag behind humanities,” he said.

SUNY Binghamton senior Kristin Schmitt thinks she's experienced grade deflation in her biology and chemistry classes, "because I noticed most science majors tend to have lower GPAs."

"In my education class and English class I didn't know anyone who received lower than an A-," she continued.

But Kuh and others say those grade differences aren't necessarily a product of inflation or deflation, but of the background each student has in those subjects.

"If you compare the humanities in general or the social sciences to the quantitative based fields like physics and like mathematics, it is the case that the grades there are not as high, in part, because students do not have the same entering ability," Kuh said,

Subjects like science and math often require completion of previous classes on similar subjects in order to move forward. "You can't start out in third level math class — like you can't take geometry unless you've had algebra," he said. First- or second-year college students who may not have taken science or math in a few years may then be in for a rude awakening when they're forced to take those subjects in college, he explained.

Is There a Solution?

Many studies of grade manipulation have been done, and the concensus appears to be that the problem will continue as long as students prioritize grades over learning, parents demand a high return — in this case good grades — on their investment, schools use grading as a public statement of quality and value, and professors are pressured to assign grades as a means of defending the quality of their work.

So, what's the solution?

Education experts offer proposals such as curving — determining final grades based on overall class performance — and pass/fail, which removes scaled letter grades and simply establishes a base standard for all students to attain.

Mansfield disagrees with the pass/fail approach.

"We should give grades because students' abilities differ in the mastery of difficult problems," he said in a grade-inflation forum on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Web site. "Going to a university is not like a driver's test, where you expect all normal people to pass."

Mansfield also said that, while teaching evaluations play a big part in pressuring professors to inflate grades, doing away with evaluations might be harder than fixing dishonest grading policies.

"Students now feel that they have the right to make professors accountable to them through evaluations," he said. "And the administrators now feel the need to have an objective evaluation of how professors teach. Unfortunately, they only use student evaluations to do that. Student evaluations are the only ones professors get a most places; they're the only evaluations that we faculty members receive at Harvard. How good a teacher you are turns out to be how good the specific students in your course think you are."

Some educators advocate a more radical approach: Honesty.

Some educators advocate using a system of academic tranparency: That is, students being required to sign course contracts acknowledging their understanding and acceptance of grading standards.

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