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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Confessions of a Grade Inflater

Hi, my name is Stephen and I am a grade inflater. Every time I do it, I resolve to never do it again, but I just can’t help myself. Lord knows, I’ve tried, but the pressures are just too great. I feel as though I have changed what I had the power to change, but I do feel powerless in the face of all the pressures. First, there is the administration that just doesn’t want to hear any complaints or law suit threats from those students who are absolutely sure that they are entitled to higher grades than they received. As an adjunct professor who has no contract beyond the current course I’m teaching, I could lose the chance to teach any more courses in the future if the administration receives negative phone calls and course evaluations. And second, it is very uncomfortable to have to deal with student anger, whining, and crying because their self-esteem has been bruised and they are absolutely sure that anything less than an “A” will hurt their transcript, future grad school applications, or chances for success in their careers and lives.

Now, I’m not an all-out grade inflater. Torn between my conscience on the one hand and my desire to remain in good standing with the university on the other hand, I have walked a fine line. I do give reasonably challenging exams and give some “C”s and occasional “F”s to students who obviously have not learned much. But, I also compromise standards by curving the grades so that the average exam grade in my graduate-level classes is “B” and any students that score a few points above the class average on an exam receive an “A”. In my classes, those who deserve a grade of “C” usually are given a “B”, and all those who deserve either a “B” or an “A” receive an “A”. Furthermore, when a student’s course grade falls right in the middle between two grades, I always give them the higher one.

Another way I have inflated students’ grades is by gradually eliminating assignments that students have found difficult. Over the last 25 years, I have seen an exponential deterioration of students’ skills in clear, focused writing and the organizing of projects and presentations. The grading of essay tests and term papers became a real ordeal for me because there were so many inadequate ones that it took far too long to read them and write constructive comments in the margins. I observed growing problems with spelling, grammar, clarity of expression, reference citation, and plagiarism. It was as if they had never learned these things in grade school, high school, and undergraduate college study, even though all students had to be exposed to things repeatedly during their years of schooling. I could only conclude that most students have received years of positive teacher comments and inflated grades, even though their writing skills were deficient. (I also suspect that many teachers at all levels, do not have sufficient writing skills to be able to properly grade their students’ written work, but this will be the subject of a future post to this blog.) So, there came a point when I ceased having students write anything, thereby making my job easier and eliminating the inherent subjectivity of grading essay tests and term papers. I then gave only objective, Scantron-scored multiple choice tests and in-class oral presentations as the only graded activities.

Of course, there is some subjectivity to the grading of oral presentations, even though I have used a simple rubric to keep me focused on the critical elements to be evaluated in each student’s presentation. While many students in my classes had excellent platform skills and were very talented at putting together PowerPoint slides, several deficiencies became much more common in recent years. The most serious of these has been disorganization of effort: many of my graduate students do not know how to make an outline to guide their efforts, and many do not know how to read a detailed 3-paragraph assignment, extract the key requirements, and then make sure they address each of the required elements in their oral presentations. In addition, I have practically begged my students to contact me to review their presentations before the due date, thereby giving them a chance to clear up any problems in advance. Unfortunately, relatively few of them (maybe 10-15%) have actually taken me up on my offer.

Virtually all of my students claimed to have done many oral reports in their previous courses in high school and college but, nevertheless, the problems I have just described have become increasingly common. Oral presentations took up a great deal of class time, made many of the students very nervous, and resulted in a good many students challenging me about the fairness of the grade they received. I have had students get furious with me because I would not change their grades and several have written vitriolic comments on their course evaluations. The problem had grown to be so serious, that I eventually eliminated this kind of assignment from my courses.

By eliminating assignments that students found to be difficult, I actually dumbed-down my courses and inflated student grades. I believe that I would not have maintained my work as an adjunct professor for 25 years if I had taken a stand based exclusively on ethics and professional standards. Of course, now that I have posted this blog, there’s a pretty good chance I might not be teaching much longer. C’est la vie!