Sunday, January 23, 2005

Grade Inflation At Princeton University

Both Professor Leopold Stotch (of Professor Chaos) and Digger (of Diggers Realm) have tipped us to a story about the grade inflation controversy at Princeton University. Professor Stotch has written the following at Outside The Beltway:

In a move students protested last year, Princeton became the first elite college to cap the number of A's that can be awarded.

Previously, there was no official limit to the number of A's handed out, and nearly half the grades in an average Princeton class have been A-pluses, A's or A-minuses. Now, each department can give A's to no more than 35 percent of its students each semester.

According to the source, the crack-down at Princeton is a precursor to a more generalized effort to "tighten-up" grading throughout the Ivy League.

Stotch is a professor at a major university. He correctly points out that many school administrators (lacking little classroom teaching experience themselves) will often judge a professors efficacy as an instructor by his or her grade distribution.

Professor Stotch asks a good question:
"The fact of the matter is that students at Ivy League schools should be getting a disproportionate number of "A"s -- otherwise, why were they admitted?"
In this era of systemic educational reform, where students in a given K-12 classroom receive instruction tailored to fulfill a set of given standards, it may be necessary to review the traditional American system of grading collegiate work.

We here at The Education Wonks think that the assignment of grades for college-level work should be similar to criterion-referenced tests. (A good example of a criterion-referenced test is that taken by applicants seeking a driver's license.)

That is to say, it should be theoretically possible for all students in a given class to receive an "A" grade. The number of students receiving high marks should be determined solely by the number that have achieved mastery of the material.

Does that happen in real life? Rarely. But the imposition of a "quota system" of grades is out-of sync with the grading system that is now evolving in America's K-12 public education system.

The old-fashioned bell-curve system of assigning grades, (where approx 40-50% of students get the "average" grade of "C") is no longer the norm in America's k-12 schools. If not dead, the bell curve has been on life-support for several years.

The thrust for systemic reform of America's k-12 public schools has also included a sustained effort to reform the system used by those institutions in the assignment of grades.

The goal is to assign students grades based upon the level of proficiency attained by each student in the subject area. Just like the driver's license examination, 100% of pupils can theoretically get an "A."

But only if they learn the material.

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