My solution for grade inflation

It is the end of the semester and grades are upon us! Continual grade inflation in higher education is a well known problem. I don’t help any — and it is relatively easy to tell you why. There are zero incentives for me to grade harshly, as giving harsh grades is the best way to get more critical student appraisals. I probably earned myself a few more critical comments in just the past few days when giving students feedback on their end of semester final papers.

Now, don’t take this as I trivially give out grades. In my courses I have come to the style of having students do many different homeworks over the semester, instead of one big project or final exam that counts towards the majority of their grade. This helps more mediocre students, as they have more opportunities to make mistakes but still get a decent grade for the course. I think in terms of pedagogy this is better than cramming for a final or pouring everything into a paper written in haste, but I have no empirical evidence to back that up.

Before giving my solution though to grade inflation, we need to step back and say what is the point of grades? For individuals externally viewing someone’s grades, they accomplish two things:

  • provide an indication of competency in some topical area, e.g. Billy can drive a car because he passed his drivers exam.
  • provide a signal to prospective employers as to the relative merits of two students, e.g. Angela is a better candidate than Billy, because Angela’s GPA is 3.7 and Billy’s is 2.9.

In terms of helping students learn, the grade itself does not help them learn, but getting critical feedback does. E.g. me telling you got a B on your final doesn’t help you learn anymore, but me telling you specifically what answers you got wrong and right does. So I only consider grades here as necessary for external use by others to judge students.

My solution to grade inflation is simple and accomplishes both of my bullet points. We should give each student a pass/fail, and then we should give each student a relative, within class ranking. Specifically, on a students transcript they should have a number that says 1/30 if they were the top student out of 30, or 15/30 if they were the 15th ranked student out of 30, etc. for each course that they took.

Pass/Fail is for the ultimate competency point. Grade inflation currently makes letter grades and GPA essentially meaningless, everyone who passes has a high grade. Minimum GPA requirements for certain degrees effectively enforce this anyway. Most schools currently have things to try to make students stand out, Honors students, Deans list, cum laude or whatever. But those are subject to the same grade inflation problems, as they use grades to meet the cut-offs. Our system is essentially pass/fail already.

The relative ranking though is a bit more novel, but also accomplishes the signal to employers part about the relative merits of two students, at least those who take the same courses. It does so in a dimensionless way though, unlike GPA or letter grades. Grade inflation currently hurts the really good students the most, as the top part of the distribution is censored by having an upper limit of an A. Assigning a relative ranking for each course allows those students to come to the top though. Even if the entire class passes, there will still be students who rank in the top part and the bottom part of the class. (It also has the added benefit of mostly eliminating grade complaining by students – I have no control of your relative ranking.)

Both of these are easily accomplished with the way courses are currently structured. Professors need not change anything essentially. There would be some specific details to work out for relative ranking (ties, and combining rankings for different sized classes for the penultimate ranking equivalent of GPA) but those aren’t insurmountable. Pass/Fail is already a part of the system, so that obviously takes no additional work.

Currently getting a relative ranking for an individual class already provides much more information than letter grades do. It has some of the same flaws as letter grades, comparisons across schools or degrees or time are much harder to make, but it is no worse than letter grades in this regard. One critique could be that if you have a good cohort you will be lower in relative rankings, but that is a good thing when considering the signal perspective from an employer, as you should be judged against your peers on the job market, not against different cohorts.

There are similar programs in place, such as those schools publishing entire grade distributions (UNC was going to do this, but I’m not sure if it ever materialized). One of my professors (who received his degree not in the US) said his institution had real curved grades, e.g. the top 30% in the course got an A, the next 30% a B, etc. This works on the same principal as my relative rankings, but you have an ultimate judgment of pass/fail, instead of having the letter grade determine the pass/fail competency. Also only having a limited set of letter grades hurts the really good students. These tend to not be popular though based on the argument that all of the students could be good. The second pass/fail separates the two goals of grades, so makes this point moot. The complaint about different professors having different grading thresholds is still a problem for the ultimate pass/fail, but is entirely eliminated with relative rankings.

I can’t be the first one to think of this — let me know in the comments if some institution is already doing this! The scatterplot blog posts by Andrew Perrin suggest that UNC tried to do something like this with an Achievement Index, but that was still based on grades and seems much more complicated than what I am suggesting offhand.

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