Some professors caution that forced standards could backfire and punish high-achieving students. Others also argue that doling out fewer A’s and more B’s and C’s could result in harsher student evaluations, which factor into promotion and tenure decisions.Or, to use the formulation I use when students ask me to clarify that line, do I want to commit myself to failing two or three or four people simply to get a Gauss-Procrustes distribution?
“I’ve taught the same course for almost 20 years,” said Joseph Konstan, a professor in [Minnesota's] Department of Computer Science and Engineering. “I’ve had times when 60 percent of the class earned an A, and I’ve had times when 20 percent of the class earned an A.”
What might tamp down grade inflation, he asked, “without disadvantaging the students who happen to come in with a good bunch?”
But the essay goes on to note that the fortunate 60 percent tends to cluster in some fields, not others.
At [Minnesota], grades vary greatly by department. Nearly 61 percent of students who took entry-level courses in the College of Education and Human Development nabbed A’s in fall 2011. In the College of Science and Engineering, 29.5 percent did. The College of Biological Sciences awarded the fewest A’s in those courses — 24.6 percent.Posting relative performance rankings, showing the percentiles that accompany the grades in each class, will give employers some basis for making those comparisons, although it's likely that a Minnesota computer science or chemistry or biology graduate is competing with graduates held to similarly tough standards elsewhere. Grade inflation variations by discipline correlate among universities and regions. There may, all the same, be incentives to inflate.
[Minnesota chemist Christopher] Cramer worries that inequality punishes the best students in the sciences when they compete for jobs against graduates from other colleges.
Karen-Sue Taussig considers herself a rigorous grader but admits to being even tougher when she started at [Minnesota] in 2001. “Looking back,” the anthropology professor said, “I really think there are a lot of subtle pressures to conform to a norm.”Yes, it's unfair that there are students at Minnesota who were smart enough to get in and well-off enough to be able to pay for it and growing up in the early twenty-first century. As P. J. O'Rourke puts it, "You better hope that life never becomes fair."
Taussig talked with her students about the rigor of her course, but still, at the end of the semester, students pushed back in course evaluations. “We live in a grade-inflated world,” one told her. Several called her grading unfair.
“I was really struck by that,” Taussig said.
She suspects that attitude is rooted in the growing cost of a degree and the declining public funding for universities. “They’re paying for it, and they worked really hard, and they put in time, and therefore they think they should get a good grade,” she said.
So the public, as much as the professors, must share expectations of what grades stand for, Taussig said.
It's up to the professor to say no and uphold standards, and it's up to the public to encourage both.