Grade compression and elite schools

by Harry on May 17, 2017

A very interesting piece by Catherine Rampell prompted by a consortium of elite prep school planning to to phase out grade altogether and replace them with qualitative evaluations. The piece is really about grade compression/inflation in elite colleges. Her thesis, which, she says, game theory would predict, is that grade compression is much more pronounced at elite colleges than at non-elite colleges, because elite colleges want to make it difficult to identify their weaker students who, thereby, have a labor market advantage over students from less elite colleges by virtue of the brand; whereas less elite colleges want to make it easy to identify their stronger students who, otherwise, might be overlooked because employers (grad schools, etc) assume they are weaker.


If you’re a top-ranked school, having more “noise” in your grading system reduces the ability of potential employers (or admissions officers) to accurately judge particular students. On average, this can boost your school’s job/admissions placement rate. That’s because the impressive school name does the work of signaling a student’s abilities, rather than a more finely grained assessment of the student’s actual abilities.

By contrast, lower-ranked schools really want superstars to stand out, lest they get written off because of the less-elite brand. To be sure, students at these lesser-ranked institutions are still pressuring grades upward, but administrators know they need some segmentation at the very top.

Thoughts?

{ 70 comments }

1

T 05.17.17 at 8:39 pm

There is also pressure from the parents footing the enormous bill that their child is not disadvantaged by having relatively poor grades. Don’t underetimate that effect. However, even with the grade inflation, dad might still have to write a check to Harvard to get little Jared accepted…

2

Jerry Vinokurov 05.17.17 at 8:39 pm

My initial read is that Rampell is dead on.

For context, here’s my background: I’m an immigrant (came to the States at age 8) who attended public schools through my undergraduate degree (in physics and math at Berkeley). I had to learn to navigate the bizarre US higher ed system pretty much entirely on my own (my parents were very supportive but didn’t really know anything about how it worked), so my opinions are in many ways a consequence of this experience.

I can tell you anecdotally that as an undergraduate and grad student, I encountered many people from peer institutions (Stanford, Harvard, CalTech) who told me, independently, such things as “I never have to worry about getting less than a B+” or “We get to have take-home finals.” All of these were very smart people, but it was clear that a floor had been placed under them and they would not be allowed to actually fail or, indeed, have any data go on their record which could make their post-college lives harder. At Brown, where I was a graduate student, a grade lower than a C won’t even show up on a transcript; it exists in some internal record, but not the record that is released for public consumption.

As far as I’m concerned, this latest maneuver by “elite” high schools is merely a continuation of a trend that began in the 20s when Harvard, to its horror, discovered that it was admitting “too many Jews.” So a system that prized academic achievement had to be “reformed” in order to maintain the admissions advantage of legacy WASPs, taking us down the road of such innovations as sports and “extracurricular activities,” which do nothing but give an advantage to the children of the economic elites. Now the complaint is about “too many Asians” who “study too hard.” Indeed, you see this quite explicitly in places like Cupertino, where white parents are withdrawing their children from the public schools on the grounds that they have to “work too hard” to keep up with the Chinese and Indian immigrant kids.

So from my vantage point, this is just straight-up racism, intended to maintain white advantage by changing the rules of the game. Don’t like the idea of academic achievement as a benchmark? Just do away with the benchmarks altogether! That way the rich white kids who go to places like Philips don’t have to feel bad about competing with some public school kid, and they’ll still get to go to some Ivy because hey, don’t we all know that rich white kids from Philips are just inherently superior, or how would they have gotten to Philips to begin with?

I have some sympathy for the general idea that grades are not a great metric of assessment, mostly because I think the way we think about assessment, especially in the sciences and math, is just mistaken. However, despite being a noisy signal, it’s still a signal. If these private schools were really undertaking some kind of radical reform in educational evaluation, that would be different, but unfortunately, as Rampell astutely points out, they’re just making sure that it’s easier to deliver the “product” that the parents pay for, namely, admission to elite universities.

3

oldster 05.17.17 at 9:01 pm

That is a very plausible hypothesis.

I had previously assumed that it was because the elites collect the students (and parents) with the greatest sense of entitlement and grievance, so that the elite schools hand out A’s in order to avoid complaints and lawsuits.

But this is a good hypothesis, too, and perhaps both factors are at work.

4

ZoroastrianKurd 05.17.17 at 9:04 pm

sounds sensible

5

OneEyedMan 05.17.17 at 9:18 pm

Seems plausible to me too, but then how do we explain the pursuit of very high level individual accolades at elite schools? For example there is tremendous institutional support at elite schools to help students win Marshal and Fulbright scholarships. They also provide elite training for individual sports and debate competitions. If they wanted to enforce a pooling equilibrium shouldn’t they avoid doing this? And if they have to, because the students demand it, why don’t the elite students also demand grade differentiation?

6

Marc 05.17.17 at 9:45 pm

The students at elite universities have passed through a series of pretty stringent formal criteria. They’re all very good at taking tests. If your entire class is former high school valedictorians, your grades are not typically going to be a bell curve if you grade on some absolute standard – everyone will be jammed up at one end. It’s a very similar dynamic to graduate level classes.

Now, you *could* choose to design tests challenging enough to still give you a dynamic range, but there is at least some case for not designing tests to deliberately fail talented students in search of some bell curve.

7

Chet Murthy 05.17.17 at 10:03 pm

If your entire class is former high school valedictorians

I would doubt that this is the case at these elite schools, simply from the numbers. More and more, it takes serious $$ to go to these schools; hence, the kids come from upper-crust high schools, of which there are few (merely b/c they’re upper-crust), and hence, lots of these kids aren’t valedictorians, eh?

Also: let’s be honest — I remember taking the SAT in 1981, and back then there was no test-prep. And then in 1985, I took the GRE general, and my friends and I were marveling that it was easier than the SAT. If you want tests that produce a larger dynamic range, just do what the French Grands Ecoles (and, I presume, the IIT system) do — insanely difficult exams that require years of study to even get close to passing.

In short, the “compression” started long before college — it started in high school, and you can see that in the SAT itself.

I lay all this at the feet of the malign influence of money and inequality. It’s nothing that steeply confiscatory progressive taxation wouldn’t fix.

8

T 05.17.17 at 10:10 pm

This has been going on for quite a while at elite colleges and universities. https://www.quora.com/How-have-Harvards-Latin-honors-changed-over-time The big issue was always getting in, not doing well once you’re there. That’s the easy part. And the elite universities had and have a wildly disproportionate number of students from private high schools.

OneEyedMan — the easiest way to get into an elite US university or college is still sports. Hence the emphasis on sports at elite high schools. Of course it’s crew, squash and fencing — not so much football. Something like 25% of undergrads at places like Williams and Amherst participate in sports. They’re not there on scholarship — no scholarships in Division III. Rather, the kids took up the sport to get in. Of course what happens it that many of these kids quit the team relatively early and stay on to graduate. That means the school has to recruit a disproportionate number of athletes for the next entering class. Ah, the rituals for the upper middle class. Of course the really rich can buy their way in — see Jared Kushner. https://www.propublica.org/article/the-story-behind-jared-kushners-curious-acceptance-into-harvard Yes, we are turning into an oligarchy.

9

M Caswell 05.17.17 at 10:15 pm

Rampell doesn’t take the pedagogical benefits of grade elimination seriously, seeing it as merely strategic obfuscation, which is too bad.

Preoccupation with grades can be a huge obstacle to good teaching and real learning. Every negotiation a teacher has over whether a paper really deserves a B minus or not is a missed opportunity to discuss the actual object of study, or the student’s interests or concerns, or their strengths and weaknesses. Since learning is an activity one must take up for oneself, eliminating grades can help by moving the question “am I learning?” to the fore, displacing the question “what grade am I getting?”

I wonder if even grade inflation might be a (less principled, less effective) way for teachers to diffuse preoccupation with grades, in order to make room for learning.

10

Sean McCann 05.17.17 at 10:25 pm

and yet grades are typically given not by institutions but by individual instructors. How do they come to feel the incentive to make the signal noisy? I can imagine that at lower ranked schools administrations might be more discouraging of grade compression. But I haven’t heard of an administration at an elite institution encouraging it. quite the contrary. maybe there is just less range in ability and performance at elite institutions.

11

engels 05.17.17 at 10:26 pm

Haven’t read it but doesn’t that assume everyone is competing in the same ‘game’? Aren’t there situations when a non-elite graduate can get hired just on the strength of being a graduate and also ones where even graduates of elite colleges need to stand out from their oeers? Maybe not.

12

Harry 05.17.17 at 10:29 pm

“More and more, it takes serious $$ to go to these schools; hence, the kids come from upper-crust high schools, of which there are few (merely b/c they’re upper-crust), and hence, lots of these kids aren’t valedictorians, eh?”

Not really, at least not the most elite schools. Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, etc, are inexpensive if you come from a low income backgrounds and can get in. (“and can get in” is a big qualifier there, but supports Marc’s point — with the exception of athletes we’re mainly talking about very very high achievers in whose human capital huge amounts of money has been invested.

13

DBW 05.17.17 at 10:46 pm

Having just had a child go through the process of college admission, I would add a couple of points here. One trend in some elite colleges and universities is to make test scores (SAT/ACT) optional, with the rationale that high school grades by themselves are the best predictor of college success. Now we are being told that those grades, which were supposedly the best indicators, draw invidious distinctions between students. This seems yet another way for affluent students to game the system. When you add to this that many elite colleges use class rank as an indicator, for schools that rank, but obviously cannot require it for those that don’t, it would seem to confirm the pattern the article suggests. Almost all private schools have given up using class rank, since it tends to highlight comparisons between students, rather than the name brand of the school. Grade inflation hides comparative academic strength in ways that might be revealed if private schools actually ranked students in their classes. Many public schools, on the other hand, rely on class rank (which is often calculated in an arcane way), which obviously situates students in relationship to their peers, even if there is relatively little actual difference in GPA between students in the top 20% and the top 50% of the class. In Texas, where I live, public schools are compelled to rank students because the University of Texas provides admission to the top 10% of students in their particular high schools. This is beneficial for those high-performing students from low-income districts, and has created greater economic class diversity at the public universities; naturally, families from affluent districts are trying to get rid of this. But as beneficial as the 10% law is for admitting students to state institutions, the practice of ranking has negative consequences for students competing with private schools for admission to elite private colleges and universities. And the same people who seem to be in favor of not having class rank in private high schools, are very interested in the rankings (as in U.S. News and World Reports) of the colleges to which they send their students.

14

Yankee 05.17.17 at 11:15 pm

Non-academic here but supposing grades are given by classroom teachers, has it been shown that those teachers are susceptible to marginal pressures on admissions/placement officers? I suppose administration participates in formulating grading policy, but the OP thesis looks to me like bad group selection.

15

Harry 05.17.17 at 11:32 pm

engels — I think it only assumes that some graduates colleges that are reasonable close to each other are competing in the same game – but there’s a kind of chain connection from the top to the bottom (some of my graduates are competing with Harvard graduates, others are competing with the higher ranked graduates of comprehensive regional universities).

Sean McCann — yes, and in fact the Princeton administration attempted actively to combat inflation/compression (and failed!).

16

Dwight Cramer 05.17.17 at 11:40 pm

Perhaps the grade floor at elite schools is a good thing because it encourages intellectual adventure, risk taking, and non-traditional exploration of the the undergraduate experience in ways that lead students if IvyPlus schools to personal confidence, courage and self-knowledge that far outweighs any potential incremental gain in technical proficiency or domain expertise motivated by grade grubbing? I know that for teachers of undergraduates that may seem laughable in the contemporary setting, but their mirth may be more a forest and the trees issue than superior knowledge based on first hand experience with the situation.
Just a thought, comrades.

17

engels 05.17.17 at 11:56 pm

some of my graduates are competing with Harvard graduates, others are competing with the higher ranked graduates of comprehensive regional universities

If that’s true then by Rampell’s logic wouldn’t the ones that are competing with Harvard grads be advantaged by a grading system that highlights relative positon whereas the others would be better served by one where noone stands out—so pace Rampell neither seems obviously preferable…

18

Lord 05.17.17 at 11:58 pm

The less elite have much greater grade inflation because they expand much more and enlarge the student population considerably. The elite schools haven’t expanded much so draw a much smaller portion of a much larger student population. Their grade compression is a reflection of this, increasingly taking the creme de la creme of a larger population.

19

Jason Smith 05.18.17 at 12:26 am

Game theory arguments frequently tend to be “just so” stories; I’m sure there is a game theory argument that would sound plausible had the data come out the other way. For example, a finding of less grade compression at elite schools could’ve been hypothesized to signal which students are legacy admissions such that they don’t impugn the elite status of the school. Someone else probably can come up with a better one.

But “elite” schools could simply admit a set of students that are harder to differentiate from each other via grades.

20

EB 05.18.17 at 12:30 am

I wouldn’t argue that the private schools’ scheme to obfuscate grades isn’t based on a desire to make all their graduates look wonderful, but I would also argue that a significant reason why elite universities tolerate grade compression while regional publics (and other non-elites) do not, is this: below the level of the elites, there are significant numbers of students who require remediation, and who often do manage to graduate but who are not, in fact, competitive with the strong students graduating from that same institution (as noted above). In order to even be able to attract strong students as they leave high school, then, they have to offer that opportunity to demonstrate excellence. Without bell-curve grading (or something similar), they would quickly lose strong students to other institutions that do offer that opportunity.

21

Jerry Vinokurov 05.18.17 at 12:48 am

If that’s true then by Rampell’s logic wouldn’t the ones that are competing with Harvard grads be advantaged by a grading system that highlights relative positon whereas the others would be better served by one where noone stands out—so pace Rampell neither seems obviously preferable…

No, because unless you’re at the very top, you’re competing with people from Harvard who themselves are also not at the very top, but have the signal scrambled relative to everyone else. In other words, if the 50th percentile student at Harvard has an A- average, and only the 90th percentile student at State U has an A- average, then the Harvard pedigree wins almost every time.

22

Main Street Muse 05.18.17 at 12:59 am

What grades do your students earn in your classes?

All I know is that I taught at a “lower-tier” school and students whined that I was a “hard grader” and most of them got Bs.

The degree from the top-tier school is the ticket. The grades are not really relevant. At my public school, my students who stood out did so because of extracurriculars (leadership positions, etc), not grades. And those students are doing well.

There are students at public universities who are told point blank that they would NEVER be considered for admission at a top-tier grad program because of where they went to school – again, grades not the issue, the category of the university was the thing.

23

Main Street Muse 05.18.17 at 1:02 am

Also, I don’t know about you, but as contingent faculty, my teaching was evaluated completely by student evaluations – and guess what? “Hard graders” don’t get perfect scores. Classroom prep, peer evaluations, curriculum development did not factor in at all. Contributing factors to why I left academia – it was a rigged game against contingent faculty and a lifetime of contingency is no way to build a career.

24

LFC 05.18.17 at 1:09 am

To some extent, the definition/perception of an elite university is situation-dependent.

Yale, for example, is an elite university, period. Is Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison also an elite university? In many respects, yes. It’s a flagship state institution with a well-known and long tradition of excellent and in some cases path-breaking or field-altering scholarship (one may have heard of the Wisconsin School in U.S. history, just to cite one, admittedly not-recent, example).

Now if a UW-Madison grad is competing w a Yale grad for a job on the East Coast, the Yale signaling effect might be stronger and, other things being equal (which they rarely are, but put that aside), the UW-Madison grad might benefit from being able to point to a transcript full of high grades, honors, etc.

If on the other hand a UW-Madison grad is competing for a job w someone from, say, Eastern Michigan University, whether the UW-Madison grad would benefit from a grading system that “highlights relative position” (and therefore avoids a lot of ‘grade compression’) is hard to say without knowing more details. The UW grad might or might not benefit from that kind of system, depending on the sort of job, how he/she performed gradewise as an undergrad, how competitors for the job performed, etc etc. But UW-Madison would certainly, I wd think, look like an elite univ. compared to Eastern Michigan (I’m not dissing the latter, btw, and actually I know almost nothing about it as a school; it’s just a name I’m grabbing for purposes of this illustration).

Btw, the Quora thing linked by T @8 does indeed show a lot of grade inflation and compression at Harvard in recent decades, but it also notes that since ’05 or thereabouts the college has put numerical limits on the numbers of students receiving Latin honors, b/c basing that (largely) on GPA was resulting in the vast majority of the class getting Latin honors of some kind; there were critical articles in the media about this and apparently a feeling on the admin’s part that it had become undesirable (for whatever reasons, p.r. or other), so they changed the system. And now, according to that linked piece, 60 percent or so of the class gets Latin honors, down from something like 85 percent (or higher) before the change. Not clear how this particular data point fits w Rampell’s thesis as reported in the OP (it appears not to fit, though it’s true that it’s not about grades per se).

25

SamChevre 05.18.17 at 1:13 am

I transferred from a very non-elite college to a fairly elite college. (For perspective, a 32 on the ACT was enough to get a full academic scholarship at my first school; a perfect score on the SAT wouldn’t have guaranteed admission to my second.)

It seems to me that there are two dynamics at work in grade compression at top schools. One is the above-mentioned signalling effects. The other is that the students at my second school were in general better students; they were smarter and better prepared, but they also spent more time studying, drank less heavily, were more likely to be focused on learning and better at choosing where within classes to focus their attention. I would guess that 90% of the students at my second school would have been straight-A students at my first school.

I am in favor of grades that are set on a consistent basis across schools (one of my pie-in-the-sky education reform ideas is to separate instruction and assessment entirely at the college level), and that are sufficient to identify the most capable students. See my longer argument here. But that will mean that most students at non-selective colleges get C’s and D’s.

26

LFC 05.18.17 at 1:20 am

@J. Vinokurov

No, because unless you’re at the very top, you’re competing with people from Harvard who themselves are also not at the very top, but have the signal scrambled relative to everyone else. In other words, if the 50th percentile student at Harvard has an A- average, and only the 90th percentile student at State U has an A- average, then the Harvard pedigree wins almost every time.

Not necessarily. Because (1) it can be assumed, I think, that at least some employers are sophisticated enough to know about grade inflation and how it differs from place to place; and (2) there are jobs, again I think it can be assumed, where a lot of different factors go into a decision, and grades may often not be the main one (or even all that important). Special skills, personality, physical appearance (which is not “supposed” to matter but I’m sure it sometimes does), how one does in an interview, perceived fit w the ‘culture’ of whatever the org is, etc. may all matter. True, this sort of assumes that the applicant has surmounted the hurdle of getting himself or herself invited for an interview.

27

Jerry Vinokurov 05.18.17 at 3:18 am

Not necessarily. Because (1) it can be assumed, I think, that at least some employers are sophisticated enough to know about grade inflation and how it differs from place to place; and (2) there are jobs, again I think it can be assumed, where a lot of different factors go into a decision, and grades may often not be the main one (or even all that important).

Certainly. This matters a lot more for entry-level jobs obtained directly out of school than it does for mid-career professionals. But counteracting (1) is the fact that a lot of the people responsible for hiring at a lot of the places where elite school graduates tend to go (e.g. banking) are themselves products of those elite schools, skewing the balance in the other direction.

There are of course a lot of positions where this just doesn’t matter; even in our decadent times, there are still far more jobs than there are graduates of the Ivy Leagues. It’s just that if you want a job with actual influence, well, those are reserved for a certain kind of person who went to a certain kind of institution.

28

PatinIowa 05.18.17 at 4:17 am

M Caswell at 9 is making the most sense here.

Here are some things to think about:

What levels of inter-rater reliability are there among graders? In the sciences? In the humanities? As far as I know, the research says very little.

Do employers really hire the candidates with the highest gpa?

When did elite institutions begin using grades? Why? How about non-elite?

What effect do race, class, gender and “attractiveness” have on grades?

What effect to grades have on evaluations for contingent faculty.

Why does cheating occur more often in institutions where rankings are frequent and consequential? (For example the service academies.)

Do you agree with Harvey Mansfield’s thesis that affirmative action is to blame?

I’ve written a more thought out piece on this: http://littlevillagemag.com/grade-inflation-frisking-harvey-mansfield/. Alas, the editor, a former student, had never heard of fisking.

If we’re talking about learning, grades are pretty useless.

29

JW Mason 05.18.17 at 4:18 am

The phenomenon is clearly real. But the proposed explanation seems fanciful. At the very least, I’d like to see some evidence that the overall grade distribution is under the deliberate control of administrators at any of these schools, elite, or non-. Rampell provides none, just “game theory predicts it.” (Which should probably be counted as less than no evidence.) Grade decisions are made by individual instructors, in accordance with policies set by individual schools or departments, based on various vague, conflicting or poorly articulated principles. I wouldn’t rule out that some administrator has, on some occasion, made the argument that it’s important to combat grade inflation because that way the stars really stand out, but the idea that the consistent application of this policy across thousands of colleges and universities is what explains the lower average grades at less selective schools, is preposterous.

There’s a much simpler explanation: many students at elite schools have the resources — social or otherwise — to make giving low grades costly to the instructor. (At the least, they are vastly more likely to complain about their grades than students at less elite schools, as I think anyone who has taught at both kinds of places will agree.) So you don’t give bad grades — why put up with the hassle? While the students at places like the one where I teach have mostly been socialized to put up with whatever sh*t people in authority drop on them.

This actually bothers me quite a bit. Rampell’s idea that stricter grading standards at less selective schools helps their best students is frankly stupid. The vast majority of people looking at a transcript of a CUNY vs a Columbia student are either going to think “an A is an A” or else they are going to think that an A at the more selective school is more impressive since the material is more challenging there. No one ever says that the CUNY A is actually more impressive because we give them to so many fewer of our students (tho they should.) Not to mention the bizarre idea that Rampell seems to have that in an across-the-board policy of harsh grading the few high grades will reliably go to the “superstars”. Does she even spend time in a classroom?

Personally my policy is to aim for a Harvard type grade distribution in my own classes. The way I see it, when people teaching at less selective schools puff their chests out about imposing standards and fighting grade inflation, they are just feeding their egos at the expense of their students and reinforcing the advantages of students at elite schools.

You do have to hand it to Rampell tho — it’s a nice trick to argue that the fact that when grades are curved to favor the privileged, that’s just a rational choice we non-elite educators are making for our students’ own good.

30

Alan White 05.18.17 at 4:18 am

As others have pointed out above, there are numerous economic pressures that account for grade-inflation across all institutions. Frankly, the only remaining factor that stands to resist the tsunami of As and Bs is individual faculty integrity, and given that is under constant assault from peer pressure at the elites and economic survival at the nons, I see no reason to think that will change until either the grading system does, or student evaluation is reformed or replaced as tied to compensation. But there are psychological factors not so easily accounted for by external influences. In my own case, my tendency toward compassion has inched any number of Ds to C-minuses over my long career. But then again, I always admired Peggy Battin’s “The Least Worst Death.”

31

JW Mason 05.18.17 at 4:26 am

Also, where does this idea that ” lower-ranked schools really want superstars to stand out, lest they get written off because of the less-elite brand” come from?

You know what, Cahterine Rampell? I actually care about the outcomes for all of my students. I actually don’t want to deliberately harm the job prospects of most of them to give a marginal boost to a couple of favorites.

What kind of awful person would take this stuff seriously?

32

magari 05.18.17 at 8:31 am

Grade inflation can be explained entirely by the incentive structure in which individual academics operate. In short, you have zero incentive to be a discerning grader regardless of where you are employed. There are two pathways to grade inflation, determined by incentives:

Pathway 1
(1) Time spent grading is time not spent publishing, hence we have every incentive to minimize the amount of time we spend grading student work.
(2) Every grade you give under an “A” requires greater and greater explanation, and thus greater and greater time investment.
(3) Ergo, we have a strong incentive to give As.

Pathway 2
(1) Student evaluations are strongly correlated with expected grade.
(2) Ergo, we have a strong incentive to give As.

But, of course, writing an article featuring the astonishingly simple truth of the matter might not get you published in WaPo, or earn you a mini-viral run through the Internets…

33

Dipper 05.18.17 at 9:02 am

I used to recruit grad and PhD maths and physics for my UK-based quant team. We soon gave up bothering about what grade people had from which university and went for ‘A’-levels as the standard we would use as this was a common level of achievement across the country. We also used a numerical reasoning test to filter, and the results of the numerical tests compared to qualifications showed a number of things – it effectively excluded women (which is a whole other topic), it correlated well with A-levels and university, and post-doc mathematicians often did quite badly. We ended up dropping the numerical reasoning test for the posts which required harder maths as it excluded people who by all other measures were very good, but keeping it for the computer-developer roles.

Having abandoned university grades as meaningless we could have filled all our roles by simply recruiting from about six UK universities, but the numerical reasoning test allowed us to bring in “outsiders”. Examples were graduates from Scottish or Northern Ireland Universities who had stayed there to study for cultural/family reasons.

We also increasingly recruited from non-UK universities. This was more difficult as we had little knowledge of the universities, the grades, and what they meant. It took us a while to understand what was important for each country, e.g. Australian universities where people tend to go to Universities in their own state, so what grade people get in their university is more important than which university they went to, which is the opposite to the UK.

Finally we did the obvious – you can recruit your mates, provided they are smarter than you. This was understandably easy for me, but successively harder for each recruit. We got a stream of really good people who were looking to get off the academic post-doc roundabout (note this route also allowed us to recruit people from a wide range of nations and also recruit women). The carrot we dangled in front of them was not money (although there was plenty of that for people who did well) but the opportunity to spend all day working on difficult problems with the prospect of these ideas being put into practise by the trading desk and if they worked then the researchers would get some of the profits, which was something not available to post-docs in academia where they seemed to spend all their time worrying about grants and their next contract.

Re the OP, what seems to be forgotten here is that the people recruiting graduates from universities have been through the same system themselves and are well aware of how relevant the grades are, or aren’t.

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Cranky Observer 05.18.17 at 11:31 am

= = = I wouldn’t argue that the private schools’ scheme to obfuscate grades isn’t based on a desire to make all their graduates look wonderful, but I would also argue that a significant reason why elite universities tolerate grade compression while regional publics (and other non-elites) do not, is this: below the level of the elites, there are significant numbers of students who require remediation, and who often do manage to graduate but who are not, in fact, competitive with the strong students graduating from that same institution (as noted above). = = =

One thing to consider is that today’s students – at least from the middle-middle class and above – are simply far better students and far better prepared for college than their predecessors. Not to say that they are more intelligent or smarter (necessarily), but they are much better prepared for the business of going to school and are trained and ready to crank out the classwork that their professors will assign. Observing my children and their peers, nieces/nephews scattered across, the country, and attending dinners with the young men & women who hold the scholarship I was awarded those many years ago I am continually struck by how much better students they are than my generation. Unless getting an A requires originality to the level of Shakespeare or Isaac Newton the upper ranks of this population – more than enough to populate all the top tier universities in the US – may well all be doing A work.

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Peter T 05.18.17 at 12:18 pm

I can’t comment on grades at non-elite universities, but grade compression at elite universities has a simple sociological explanation – the strong tendency of elites to pretend to equality within the charmed circle (“all gentlefolk here”). As for the effect on competition either within the elite pool or with outsiders, around 85 per cent of jobs are filled through networking (probably more at elite levels). I doubt the friends and relatives recommending the person pay great attention to grades.

36

Eszter 05.18.17 at 12:37 pm

Hampshire College (MA) has been doing this for a long time (no grades, qual evaluations). I suspect it’s a lot of work for the profs and much more meaningful for the students. It gets tricky come application time to graduate school, however. But I think they’ve figured out a way to deal with that.

37

bianca steele 05.18.17 at 1:31 pm

The other side of the coin is that minority students from elite universities might be believed to have benefited from grade inflation, while well prepared honors students from heartland flagships, usually white, are believed not to have.

As an Ivy graduate from a modest background, I have to periodically reassure myself, in these discussions, that my average was probably not, actually, as well below average as my high school and hordes of Internet commenters might suggest, if I graduated with honors.

38

PatinIowa 05.18.17 at 1:47 pm

One more time, then I’ll quit, I swear.

The use of the term “grade inflation” begs the question.

39

JW Mason 05.18.17 at 2:11 pm

Hampshire College (MA) has been doing this for a long time (no grades, qual evaluations). I suspect it’s a lot of work for the profs and much more meaningful for the students.

Yes, I have a couple friends who teach at Hampshire and this is definitely their experience.

Which think gets at the underlying reality that Rampell’s piece is trying to deny: People at schools across the spectrum really do want to educate their students. Only someone steeped in the culture of economics could imagine that the sort of rankings-games Rampell talks about could motivate you to go into a classroom every day. Teachers really want to teach, they want students to learn.

There’s good reason to think that qualitative evaluations support learning better than letter grades do. But these kinds of evaluations are expensive — they require more time from instructors, and instructors motivated to do them. So only the best-resourced institutions can afford them.

(Ok, schools like Hampshire and Evergreen — which also uses only evaluations — are not especially wealthy by the scale of elite private colleges. But they are wealthy enough to go this route if it’s a priority for them.)

40

mark 05.18.17 at 2:19 pm

In other words, if the 50th percentile student at Harvard has an A- average, and only the 90th percentile student at State U has an A- average, then the Harvard pedigree wins almost every time.

Not sure that’s true. If I go through a hundred resumes and they are all A minuses of course the two from Harvard really stand out, but importantly they are the only two that stand out.

OTOH, if A- is rare in non-Ivy league schools I’m also adding a few more ‘top candidates’ from the rest of the stack as I move to the next round. At that point the nominal GPA doesn’t matter much. They are all standouts moving ahead, not two elites and some also rans.

41

Dipper 05.18.17 at 2:23 pm

If you are worried about the quality of student emerging from the elite schools of the USA or, for that matter, the UK, then you can always choose to recruit from the French Grandes Ecoles, easily the best education system for STEM graduates in the world.

42

Jake Gibson 05.18.17 at 2:30 pm

A lot of this is anecdotal.
There is a saying that Ivy League schools are “hard to get into, but easy to get out of “(graduate).
My Alma Mater is an open admission public university. In the same vein, it was said to be “easy to get into, but hard to get out of.”
I state with conviction that you could get an education there equal to what you could at Harvard, but you would have to do more of it yourself.

43

Trader Joe 05.18.17 at 3:18 pm

I hate to break the bad news to the many academics here, but as a regularl hirer of college grads, for the most part grades don’t mean a lot once they are above some threshold level (each organization has one maybe its 3.0, maybe 3.2 whatever).

Likewise, big recruiting firms have some number of “go to” schools where they consistently have found good graduates – naturally the traditionally ‘elite’ Ivies and near-Ivies are on the list, but large state schools are also highly represented – in the Mid-Atlantic it would be schools like Penn State, Virginia, VA-Tech, several North Carolina schools (among others) for example.

Below a grade threshold and outside of the preferred schools a candidate is disadvantaged not so much by grades as that there just aren’t many slots left to fill. If a recruit class is planned at 10 kids, probably 9 slots will wind up coming from the go-to schools, maybe even all 10. Organizations learn what they can expect from kids from a certain school, the thought is (even if not empirical) is that there’s more downside than upside coloring outside the lines.

Interview, evidence of work-ethic and to the extent possible relevant internships or experience is what wins the competition. I appreciate those things can also be the product of privledge, but it also means the grades are much less relevant than might be expected.

I likewise think learning and evaluation of learning is threshold based rather than “curved” if every kid in a class can demonstrate proficiency at X, Y and Z… all of them should get an “A.” If they can’t then they should get an “F.” Everything else is just nuance.

44

passer-by 05.18.17 at 3:25 pm

Completely anecdotal data point for those wondering about how the “administration” at elite schools could have much influence on “individual instructors”, based on my very superficial experience as a TA at an Ivy League during my PhD:
– as far as I can remember, most of the grading at the undergraduate level was done by TA’s, not tenured faculty. Not only were TA graduate students acutely aware of the importance of student evals and had exactly zero incentive to antagonize students, they were also often foreigners (from a significant minority to a significant majority, varying by department – although I do not have any statistics to back up this impression). As foreigners, we a) had zero investment in the discussions surrounding grading, university competition in the US etc, b) came from completely different academic cultures and were unfamiliar with US grading systems and practices. So at the start, the very basis of our understanding of said system at said university came from… the administration. Yes, professors would then weigh in, but we had lengthy and compulsory introductions to teaching in the US, and those were definitely organized by the administration. Our next source of information were other TA’s. Professors played a marginal role (and I cannot remember a single one encouraging us to be “tougher” on the students – they mostly just wanted not to bother / to be told who the few really outstanding students were).
– the overwhelming majority of the students got A’s. Several factors were in play: aforementioned position of the TA’s, as main graders; high level of students, of course; but also the fact that a lot of effort was expanded to ensure, in different ways, that only those students best prepared to take the course would actually take it (from different strategies for discouraging “excess” enrollment during shopping week to encouraging marginally successful students to drop out during the term), and ENORMOUS one-on-one support for the few students who were truly struggling with the course. That group would end up with B’s; all the others got A’s (and I was astonished by the level of grade anxiety exhibited by the students, in spite of the ease of getting A’s). Some of those A’s went to truly amazing students; most of those A’s went to high achievers with good habits, which they would apply to achieve minimal mastery.
Those last two elements can be seen as positive for students (why let them fail?). On the other hand, given the fact that such an institution had already selected very high achievers, I found it weird that they would not encourage them to take their own risks and responsibilities.
As to the grade inflation, I would have balked at it as a student. Given the tremendous advantage confered by the Ivy League name itself, a C here and there would probably not have much impact on a student’s latter prospects. But A’s for everyone made it impossible for anyone outside the institution to identify the truly outstanding students.

45

mpowell 05.18.17 at 5:32 pm

Law and medical schools historically have used grades and test scores heavily in their admission process. This was a major driver of grade anxiety at elite schools as the perception is that those programs do not fairly account for undergrad program difficulty. I tend to wonder about that assumption, but premeds as a group are really big worriers. But my experience is about 15 years out-of-date. I imagine this has been a major driver of grade inflation at elite schools from the student body side. Students not planning to go into those careers still care a lot about grades at elite schools, but just not nearly as much.

46

M Caswell 05.18.17 at 5:49 pm

“I hate to break the bad news to the many academics here, but as a regular hirer of college grads, for the most part grades don’t mean a lot once they are above some threshold level “

I don’t take this as bad news in the least. Indeed, I’m surprised any employers examine transcripts at all. Grad schools do, however.

47

JW Mason 05.18.17 at 6:52 pm

as a regularl hirer of college grads, for the most part grades don’t mean a lot once they are above some threshold level (each organization has one maybe its 3.0, maybe 3.2 whatever). Likewise, big recruiting firms have some number of “go to” schools where they consistently have found good graduates – naturally the traditionally ‘elite’ Ivies and near-Ivies are on the list, but large state schools are also highly represented

This all seems right. (And it fits my more limited experience as someone who’s occasionally participated in the hiring process for non-academic jobs.) Which shows how silly Rampell’s story is. To the extent grades enter into the hiring process, it’s in a very coarse-grained way. “Good enough” or “not good enough,” assessed in a couple seconds. The idea that people are going through some kind of precise conversion metric — “a GPA of 3.9 from this school is equivalent to a 3.2 from that school” — is just absurd. At the margin, if students at school A get higher grades on average than students at school B, students from school A will be favored in hiring.

48

David Wright 05.18.17 at 7:17 pm

Like Trader Joe above, I work in the private sector (software industry) and regularly hire college grads. I have never once even glaced at a college transcript. I can get vastly more relevant information out of a few minutes of interview time. So while the explanation seems plausible, my own experience would lead me emphasize academics’ own internecine status wars more than any external actors who want to use grades as a discriminator.

49

LFC 05.18.17 at 7:51 pm

passer-by @44
Completely anecdotal data point for those wondering about how the “administration” at elite schools could have much influence on “individual instructors”, based on my very superficial experience as a TA at an Ivy League during my PhD:
– as far as I can remember, most of the grading at the undergraduate level was done by TA’s, not tenured faculty. Not only were TA graduate students acutely aware of the importance of student evals and had exactly zero incentive to antagonize students…

This provides an example of how things have changed from approx. 4 decades ago, when I was an undergrad. Then, as now, much of the grading, at least at this sort of univ., was done by grad students, but I can’t recall ever filling out an evaluation for any of them (or for any of the professors I encountered in the classroom, for that matter). In some/many cases the grad students taught; in other cases they were simply faceless graders and in the latter case no evaluation of their teaching wd have been possible even if evals had been routine which, as mentioned, they certainly weren’t.

The result back then to my recollection was that, and this of course is very anecdotal, some (not most I wd say, but some) grad students were not interested in ‘coddling’ undergrads but, if anything, in the opposite, i.e. finding reasons to be, relatively speaking, harsh. For ex., I recall a paper about Gladstone that I did in a British history course; it was read and graded by a grad student TA, who as I recall didn’t lead a discussion section (as I recall, the course didn’t have them), but I knew very well who he was and even remember his name. One of his comments chided me for neglecting a point that in fact I had made in an endnote, which he hadn’t bothered to read. B/c the paper was undistinguished anyway and b/c I almost never complained about or queried my grades, I never went to him and pointed out that I had made the very point he criticized me for overlooking.

The other side of the coin is that — not having to worry about student evaluations and perhaps not quite so consumed with worry about their job prospects as they typically are today — grad students in those days quite often took the time to write detailed, candid, and critical comments on papers. If done fairly and constructively rather than simply to find fault, these often could be very helpful and/or interesting. At least, that was my experience. Perhaps grad-student graders today still write detailed comments on papers, but my guess is that the norms have shifted toward brief and banal praise as the default mode (except maybe if an undergrad student is truly exceptional and the grad-student grader wants to engage w him/her as a scholarly peer).

50

Harry 05.18.17 at 10:03 pm

Too many comments here to respond to but a couple of things:
I agree with Pat in Iowa that the term grade inflation begs the question (or a question). Here’s what I wrote long ago on that:
http://crookedtimber.org/2005/07/26/is-grade-inflation-real/
http://crookedtimber.org/2008/08/18/grade-inflation/

LFC – – well, one thing that seems to have happened is that students write less and there is less to comment on. But, my experience with TAs is that they have a very pronounced tendency to write too much feedback on papers — making it hard for students to absorb it. I think Philosophy at least has a culture of extensive feedback

Engels’s point at 17. I thought about that. What I wondered is whether the extend of grade compression varies by college (within my institution). In some of the professional schools (eg nursing, education, parts of the business school) the graduates are all competing with students from similarly or less well ranked institutions. From others (parts of Letters and Science, other parts of the business school) some students are competing with students from super-elites. If she’s right then grade compression/inflation should be more noticeable in the teacher ed programs and marketing, and less noticeable in accounting, physics, and philosophy.

51

Corey Robin 05.18.17 at 10:53 pm

I haven’t read all the comments here, but I want to strongly support, by way of anecdata, this point of Josh Mason’s at 29 above: “There’s a much simpler explanation: many students at elite schools have the resources — social or otherwise — to make giving low grades costly to the instructor. (At the least, they are vastly more likely to complain about their grades than students at less elite schools, as I think anyone who has taught at both kinds of places will agree.) So you don’t give bad grades — why put up with the hassle?”

When I was a grad student, teaching my own course at Yale, I gave what is by Ivy League standards a horribly low grade to one student: a C+. The amount of grief I got—not from the student but from a flotilla of deanlets (not the Dean of Yale College but a sub-level of administrators who seem to populate these places and whose titles I can’t remember)—would make even the most seasoned and confident instructor blanch. If you give anything less than a B, you really have to be ready to go to war with the institution.

By contrast, whenever I give a comparable or lower grade at CUNY, not a single person from the administration reaches out. Students are completely on their own. A few of them have the wherewithal to ask, ever so tentatively, but that’s it. I try to build a lot more iteration and feedback into my writing assignments, and often require meetings with the students, so I think most students have a clear understanding of what went wrong. But if I’m unfair or they perceive me as being unfair, they just don’t have the institutional resources or social clout to fight it.

52

LFC 05.18.17 at 10:54 pm

Harry B.
my experience with TAs is that they have a very pronounced tendency to write too much feedback on papers — making it hard for students to absorb it. I think Philosophy at least has a culture of extensive feedback

This may be something particular to Philosophy — I don’t know. In terms of courses formally labeled Philosophy XXX and taught in a Philosophy department, I took only one as an undergrad, as a freshman to be more specific (intro to analytic philosophy, read Russell, Carnap, etc.). W/o going into details, I didn’t much like the course and I never took another formally-labeled Philosophy course (though I sort of got some philosophy in other courses). As for feedback, I happened to like a lot of feedback on papers, but I suppose it would be possible to go overboard and write too much.

53

L2P 05.18.17 at 11:00 pm

Isn’t a large part of grade compression at elite schools due to trying to find a curve that will differentiate a bunch of highly gifted kids that work really hard, but also fairly measures their ability?

I’d think a school like MIT or Yale is like the Olympic qualifiers for track and field. You’ll have dozens of athletes who are all within .3 seconds in the 100 meter dash. Even the very worst sprinter, the woman whose country barely even has a team, is still really, really good compared to the average person. Every now and then somebody sneaks in who’s not up to par, but that’s pretty rare. You could have a curve that gives these athletes 20% As, 20% Bs, and so on, but we all know that they’re all so far above A+ compared to the average person that that sort of curve is meaningless.

54

Peter T 05.18.17 at 11:41 pm

“they’re all so far above A+ compared to the average person that that sort of curve is meaningless.”

By what metric? Since these people populate the upper levels of US business and government, and the record of both has been abysmal for decades, it does not seem that they actually do better at their jobs than average people.

55

Marc 05.19.17 at 12:29 am

@54: People who get into elite schools are exceptionally good at taking tests and getting good grades. It’s not a moral judgment: it’s something that they’ve gotten into those schools for.

The Ivy League does have some pathologies (e.g. the difficulty in giving low grades is real), but the students who get low grades are still quite capable, just typically disinterested or lazy. Teaching at a non-ivy, you really do encounter students who just don’t understand the material even though they are trying very hard.

56

Adam 05.19.17 at 12:40 am

@ Jerry Vinokurov

You are completely correct – the purpose is obfuscation.

This is particularly clear with law school grades. Law schools generally grade on a curve mandated by the administration. The midpoint of this curve varies. At elite schools, the midpoint is very high (e.g., 3.5/4.0). At second and third tier schools the midpoint is much lower (e.g., 2.77/4.0). Certain top law schools, such as Harvard, expressly refuse to disclose grade distribution or class rank.

This makes sense from the viewpoint of the school – employers would rather hire the 75% percentile student from Vanderbilt (Ranked #16) than the 25% percentile student from Harvard (Ranked #2). But because Harvard doesn’t release class rank or grade distribution, you’ll never know whether that Harvard student with the 3.5 GPA is excelling or merely being carried along by the curve. All you’ll know is that they went to Harvard.

The administration configures the curve strategically as a business decision. I know at least one law school that decided to increase the midpoint of the grading distribution with the express purpose of increasing the competitiveness of the students in the job market. This was not a secret – the Dean sent an email to student body explaining the change. Also, this change was in response to similarly ranked schools making similar grading changes. It’s an arms race.

In contrast, the low ranking law schools use the curve to screw students out of scholarships. Many third tier law schools offer entering students a scholarship conditioned on maintaining at least a 3.0 GPA. Students anticipating the grade inflation of undergrad expect that maintaining such a GPA won’t be a problem. But these schools set the midpoint of the curve at a 2.77 GPA. After the first year, most students lose their scholarships. With low grades and no ability to transfer to another school, these poor souls soldier on, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for a worthless degree.

And you are also right about the racial angle. Many top US schools have informal Asian quotas that they enforce using soft criteria like extracurricular activities.

57

Meredith 05.19.17 at 5:23 pm

I am down to my last six papers and six exams after teaching for over 40 years at an elite SLAC. A few observations:

Cranky Observer @34 is correct, in my experience. Today’s students, including the increasing number of first-generation college students and of black and brown students, are better prepared for college today and, once they are here, work much harder in their courses than most students did thirty and forty years ago.

JW Maston@39 gets to an essential point: “Which thin[g] gets at the underlying reality that Rampell’s piece is trying to deny: People at schools across the spectrum really do want to educate their students. Only someone steeped in the culture of economics could imagine that the sort of rankings-games Rampell talks about could motivate you to go into a classroom every day. Teachers really want to teach, they want students to learn.” True not just of my SLAC colleagues and my husband and his colleagues at a small state college, but also of most colleagues at Ivy Leagues and other elite universities, at least in my discipline.

A few random observations related to various comments above.
– Organized sports, sponsored by the college or university, became important starting after the CW. Their history is more complicated than someone suggested above, referring to Harvard’s interest in minimizing the number of Jewish students decades ago. In my years at my SLAC, sports have often provided an important entry for working class and minority students who otherwise would not have been admitted but were still capable of doing well here. A lot more could be said about sports….
– At my SLAC almost half the students play a varsity sport. I think 25% would be about right for the number who participate in two varsity sports. These figures don’t include the numerous sports clubs, from rugby to frisbee to broomball. I expect there will be a kubb club or league soon. I would add that probably at least half the students take music lessons and/or perform in musical groups and/or participate in theater productions and/or spend a lot of their time in the studio art building…. Not to mention a thousand other things students do that are of value for their own educations and for others (e.g., tutoring local middle and high school students, volunteering at local food banks — out of genuine commitment, btw). Cf. Cranky Observer’s observation.
– Never in over 40 years has anyone from Admissions ever uttered a peep about faculty grading — it is unimaginable that they would. College deans (who are drawn from the faculty) regularly exhort us to be careful about grade inflation, and grade ranges are published each semester for each division and department (though I think few faculty pay much attention). There are a lot of reasons for so-called grade inflation, including that students really do perform better in their courses than they used to.
– It took me only a few years to realize that businesses, banks, and most employers are usually not interested in a student’s grade point average, so long as it’s decent. I’d note that many employers are impressed by athletic achievement and especially by participation in a team sport. (On the other hand: a musician friend of mine was part of a successful digital start-up years ago, in Cambridge. On one occasion the secret ingredient they were looking for in a new hire was a good cellist, who could fill the recent vacancy in their string quartet. The world is a funny place.)
– Grade point averages matter to most grad school departments, but just as important are letters of recommendation. An advantage elite schools may have, not mentioned above, is the name recognition of their faculty on letters of recommendation.
– Professional schools, especially medical schools, are deluged with applications, so they use artificial cut-offs, knowing full well that they may be overlooking excellent candidates. So what? They will still have a huge pool of excellent candidates from whom to choose. I suspect the same reality governs lots of hiring practices in law and business. Understandable (admissions and hiring are enormously time-consuming) but problematic: that’s how white, class, and gender privilege insinuate themselves into everything and why counter pressures (e.g., affirmative action) are important. But I don’t think we should conflate these types of (usually) unintended discrimination with a snotty, smug self-satisfaction of an elite class. The latter exists, of course, but less than some commenters here seem to think.

58

Ebenezer Scrooge 05.19.17 at 6:56 pm

A few factoids:
– From what I heard, grade inflation started during the Vietnam war, when faculty felt uncomfortable about flunking their students into the Army. I don’t know if it is true.
– Even in the Ivies, there is one big exception to grade inflation: introductory hard-science courses, predominantly chemistry. (Physics-for-physics-majors is more inflated than physics-for-premeds, but it’s a damn sight harder, too.)
– I work for a fairly fancy law shop, that hires from fairly fancy schools. We don’t look at grades. (I do look at undergrad majors: STEM and philosophy are my favorites.) When we hire experienced people, we don’t look at law schools, either.

59

SAM TOBIN-HOCHSTADT 05.20.17 at 2:25 am

First, unsurprisingly the professors in this thread are right about the behavior of professors, who are the people responsible for grades in almost every university.

Second, having been a student at Chicago and Northeastern, and a professor at Northeastern and Indiana, it’s not at all the case that grade inflation is a fancy school phenomenon.

Third, while TAs do most of the grading and get evaluations, those evaluations count for approximately 0 in any context in the department. This of course isn’t the case when the grad student actually is the instructor, but that’s a quite different role.

Fourth, there’s something deeply weird about the whole “grade inflation” discussion. If everyone started doing well on the SAT, we’d celebrate. If all my students got A’s, I’d be overjoyed.

60

procrastinating professor 05.20.17 at 3:26 pm

As a professor in the sciences at an Ivy school, I find myself mostly giving high grades, but then, my students are mostly doing well. I’m not sure to what extent I should view this as a bad thing. But there are related problems. The two that bother me most are the extreme difficulty of giving poor grades to students who are failing, and the perverse incentives associated with student evaluations. Failing grades must be accompanied by numerous warnings to departmental administrators and deanlets, and they are strongly resisted. Even students who never come to class, never turn in homework, and miss exams have deanlets advocating on their behalf, insisting that they are working hard, and guilt-tripping faculty with stories about how a poor grade would ruin the student’s career plans.

Student evaluations also seem highly problematic. They have well-established biases; women, for instance, are systematically rated worse than men. But at least in the departments I’m aware of in the sciences they are treated as the authoritative source of information on teaching quality. This definitely carries with it an incentive to teach easier classes and give better grades; at least anecdotally, student evaluation scores in easier classes are better. The range of evaluation scores is also somewhat compressed. On a 5 point scale I’ve landed from upper 3.x to low-to-mid 4.x, which seems to be viewed as good enough. My wife, a professor at a different Ivy school, gets (translating from a different convention) scores in the low-to-mid 3.x out of 5 range, which her department chair says is so low that he may not defend her tenure case to the dean unless it increases. As a woman with a foreign accent, it’s not clear that she has any good route to raise that number short of making her classes easier.

61

CDT 05.20.17 at 4:14 pm

Long-time big firm hiring partner here. Grades matter only when you are screening resumes. At that stage, the criterion is indeed “good enough to merit an interview.” What is “good enough” does vary a bit based on the prestige of the school , but after the paper screening process grades matter very little. We hired relatively lower-ranked students all the time based on personality.

62

CDT 05.20.17 at 4:32 pm

PS: I don’t doubt the hypothesis, but at least in the law business negligible attention is paid to relative class rank above whatever threshold is deemed good enough. It is true that the “good enough” threshold is commonly more generous for schools deemed to be better. However, an impeccable resume that screams privilege can actually be a red flag. One needs to be reasonably bright to be an attorney, but not unduly so. I suspect the same is true of most white collar jobs outside of academia. More important are work ethic, writing skill, and an ability to relate to people (I.e., woo clients). I’d take a Big Ten grad with shards rabble background over a legacy Harvard grad any day. Certain schools — Chicago and perhaps Yale – are much better at producing brilliant egghead professors than practicing attorneys.

63

CDT 05.20.17 at 4:34 pm

Make that “hardscrabble.”

64

Jerry Vinokurov 05.20.17 at 8:33 pm

Student evaluations are literally worth less than the paper they are printed on, and their continued use in tenure decisions is one of the many absurdities foisted on academia by the managerial parasites who have hijacked it.

65

Peter Dorman 05.20.17 at 9:39 pm

I agree with virtually everything Josh Mason has written here, but want to point out that Evergreen State College, where I teach and which uses narrative evaluation rather than grades, is a public institution that is horribly short of funding and gets by on a shoestring. One reason for this is that its costs are high by comparative standards—because it uses the highly interactive teaching methods that are required by its system of evaluation. (And also because it pays adjuncts nearly the same salaries as tenured and tenure-track faculty, but that’s another story.)

Does qualitative evaluation have a compressive or obscuring effect on the reported performance of graduates? Not in my experience. Our narrative evaluations tend to be highly concrete, discussing specific skill and knowledge acquisitions (good on the historical and institutional aspects of political economy, still grappling with the quantitative aspects, as evidenced by blah blah blah, etc.) and describing in some detail student work products like research projects, along with evidence of the work ethic or lack thereof that these outcomes reflect. I believe this is an important reason why *all* of my students who apply for grad programs get in to one they’re willing to accept. Whatever it is that recruiters and admissions committees are looking for in order to filter, they’ll find in a well-written narrative eval.

At the same time, I have to admit that the grade inflation phenomenon has taken root at Evergreen and is having a deeply detrimental effect on the institution. Many faculty, either for philosophical reasons or a desire to preserve their bond with students (and the less hassled teaching and positive faculty evals that this protects), are lavishing undifferentiated praise on a broad range of student performance. This tends to feed back into teaching methods, which become less demanding. The college’s reputation in the wider world suffers as a result.

The point is that a shift from letter grades to narrative evaluation is not intrinsically less differentiating. The wider forces (including evolving faculty conceptions of the role of comparative performance assessment and sorting in education, which is a big factor not mentioned here yet) that have been promoting compression operate equally in both systems.

66

harry b 05.21.17 at 1:22 am

One big upside of the narrative evaluation is that it forces professors to pay as much attention to each students as many of us give to those for whom we end up writing letters of recommendation. Far too often I (in the Philosophy department) am the person best placed to write a good (knowledgeable about the student) letter for students who are not Philosophy majors.

67

harry b 05.21.17 at 1:24 am

Just to say, if we were a high-cost department, relative to the numbers of students we teach, that would be entirely reasonable and understandable. But typically these students major in units that are higher cost per-student taught than we are.

68

Jonathan Gilligan 05.21.17 at 2:58 am

Corey Robin’s comment at 51 and JW Mason’s at 29 and elsewhere remind me of Annette Larreau’s work on the contrast between children of the economically well-off, who tend to be raised with a “sense of entitlement” that encourages arguing back with those in positions of power and prepares them to argue well, and children of the economically disadvantages, who tend to be raised with a “sense of constraint” that discourages challenging authority.

Larreau notes that the sense of entitlement is not intrinsically better or more socially desirable than a sense of constraint, and indeed it appears to carry some real negative externalities, but our culture is structured to reward the brash individualism that goes along with the sense of entitlement and to make it harder for those without it to improve their situations.

69

Meredith 05.21.17 at 4:22 am

Jonathan Gilligan@68 makes a good point, I think, though I haven’t read Larreau. Teaching more economically disadvantaged students in recent years, I have been struck by their tendency to less resistance and arguing back, at least in class (though not on the larger campus). A clear exception to this generalization, though: economically disadvantaged students from Roman Catholic schools. Kind of interesting, that (says this old Protestant lady). Lots of cross-currents on a college campus. (I’ll miss the confused and confusing melee!)

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Anon 05.22.17 at 4:17 pm

Did my UG and a Masters in Oxford and Cambridge, and thereafter a PhD at an “elite” university in the States. Always was baffled that in the States the grading was done by the course instructor themselves, that there were grades for “participation” (come on! This was not middle school anymore!), and that the papers/exams that got marked carried the student’s real name, and not an anonymised (exam) candidate number. My confusion was resolved when I got to TA myself, and could thus observe the occasionally truly Olympian contortions undergone by Instructors to ensure that no one got less than a B.

In Oxbridge, of course, things worked a little differently: exams and hand-in essays were not graded by your instructor, but by 2 (two) separate examiners, who only saw your candidate number, but never your real name. The local equivalents to C (2.2) & occasionally even D (“Third”) or less (“Ordinary”) were handed out reasonably regularly, and the average grade was a B (2.1), not an A (First).

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