Sunday, January 02, 2011

What Do Grades Really Mean?

The Christmas Day edition of the New York Times carried an interesting article entitled "A Quest to Explain What Grades Really Mean". The motivation for the article was based around concerns relating to grade inflation, a topic which has been discussed before on this blog; for example here. There are also concerns on the part of students: "In hard economic times, students worry that professors who are stingy with the A’s will leave them at a disadvantage in graduate school admissions and employment." Interestingly, the NYT article states that: "Princeton adopted guidelines in 2004 providing that no more than 35 percent of undergraduate grades should be A’s, a policy that remains controversial on campus." According to the Ivy Gate Blog, Princeton have studied the effects on admissions rates to top medical schools and law schools, and found no effect. It was also reported in the NYT article that "Dartmouth transcripts include median grades, along with the number of courses in which the student exceeded, equaled or came in lower than those medians. Columbia transcripts show the percentage of students in the course who earned an A."

There is also reference to some academic research in the NYT article. In 1996, Cornell’s faculty adopted a “truth in grading” policy, and median grades were posted online starting in 1998. The policy called for median grades to be shown on transcripts as soon as student-records technology made that possible, but that did not happen until a full decade later. "While the median grades were available only online, a study by three Cornell economists found a large increase in enrollment in courses with a median grade of A — further driving grade inflation." This is suggestive of students enrolling in classes where it easier to obtain higher grade-scores; an issue which I raised before in relation to the Irish Leaving Certificate: the final examination at the end of second-level education Ireland.

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