02 March 2015

The “Texas transcript” is a good idea, but won’t solve grade inflation

“Devastating crisis.”






“Still worse is its effect on the souls.”

With language like that, you’d think the author was talking about a terrorist attack, Biblical plague,  or a new Twilight book.

Nope. This is about grade inflation in universities. A C used to be considered average, but now, the most common grade in American universities is an “A.”

The solution being proposed to this scourge? (Sorry, got carried in wanting to match the original article’s over the top descriptions.)

Texas House Bill 1196 [and] Senate Bill 499... would require schools to “place the average or median grade, as applicable, immediately to the right of the student’s individual grade” on official transcripts.

I like this idea. Letter grades alone are not all that informative. I am often asked to write recommendation letters for students, and one of the things I often try to do is to give the reviewer a sense of where that student stood relative to the rest of the class. A student might have an A but be in the bottom half of the class, or might have a B but be in the top ten percent of a class.

Author Tom Lindsay says we would need a “wait and see” if this approach curbs grade inflation. But he claims:

At the least, the larger culture would be alerted to those schools and majors that have maintained standards and those that have not.

The transcript described can’t inform “the larger culture” about universities and majors. All it does is provide information about the classes one student took. An employer, review committee, parent, or even the student still has no way of knowing how one major or one university stacks up to any other.

More seriously, the “larger culture” has deep, preconceived notions about “standards.” And people will tell their own narratives that fit their preconceived ideas.

Remember a couple of recent papers that showed that the graduates of “elite” universities locked up a disproportionate number of tenure-track academic positions? I saw a discussion of that paper on Facebook, and people immediately leaped to the hypothesis that the reason for this was that the graduates from those universities were better. People made arguments like:

Highly selective admission leads to better candidates.
Guess what schools don’t have to admit “warm bodies?” The elite schools get plenty of top notch applicants.
Higher profile or elite schools have wealthier alumni, and more resources, so that may lead to slightly stronger portfolios, giving grads an advantage.
Top-tier schools have more resources for research support.

People jumped to a “fair world” argument even though the authors of one paper (Clauset and colleagues) explicitly wrote that this hypothesis was highly unlikely:

Under a meritocracy, the observed placement rates would imply that faculty with doctorates from the top 10 units are inherently two to six times more productive than faculty with doctorates from the third 10 units. The magnitude of these differences makes a pure meritocracy seem implausible, suggesting the influence of nonmeritocratic factors like social status.

People will certainly start applying the same sorts of “just so” stories to explain differences in grades across institutions. They will say, “Well, of course students from Elite University get lots of As, because that one only takes the smartest! That’s not grade inflation, that’s just proof they are the best, and provide the best training to students!”

On the other hand, if a student gets low grades from an Elite University, people will say, “Well, of course Elite University has the most rigorous academic standards! A C from Elite University is equivalent to an A from Run-of-the-Mill University!”

So showing people the averages on transcripts seems unlikely to inform the “larger culture” about grade inflation in any meaningful way. And students at less prestigious institutions will continue to be shortchanged.

(Aside: For a long time, I didn’t understand why university administrators cared so much so much about university rankings and spent huge amounts of effort gaming the system to get their universities to be seen as “top tier.” The longer I stay in academia, the more I understand it. A lot rides on public perception of academic prestige and rigor, far more than actual rigor. It’s disappointing, but that’s the reality of the situation.)

The only way that you can demonstrate rigor across majors and institutions is by taking a bunch of students, and giving them all the same, standardized assessments. Sound familiar? It’s an approach that is rampant in K-12. It’s also an approach that has been widely criticized for not taking into account external influences like poverty and other socioeconomic factors. Do you expect a university that enrolls lots of first generation minority students from an economically disadvantaged background to have the same outcomes as a university that mostly enrolls majority students raised by professional parents?

What do “standards” and “rigor” mean to those two populations? I’m not sure they will mean the same thing, or that they should.

Linday also claims:

(T)he bill avoids seeking to micromanage the state’s institutions of higher education. It does not require them to do anything differently(.)

That’s got to be a little simplistic. While institutions have all that data, computing it, and then putting it on transcripts is probably a trivial thing, because transcripts are still stuck in the ninetheeth century. You would have to add columns, explanations, change all the typesetting, and so on. That means every university in Texas would have to retool their transcripts from scratch.

Related posts

What grades should look like 
Their grades were too... high?
Remaking the transcript
Why grade inflation is good for the GRE 

External links

The Texas Legislature looks to lift college grading standards

01 March 2015

Comments for second half of February 2015

The Molecular Ecologist has a some nifty survey results about how scientists pick which journal to publish in. Surprise! That intangible perfume of “prestige” and Impact Factor are two of the three biggest factors.

Bethany Brookshire introduces the lovely word parthenogenesis.

DrugMonkey asks readers in graduate programs about their entry requirements.

I make a cameo in an important post on scientists paying expenses out of pocket.

16 February 2015

The Journal of Funding Agency

An argument in scientific publishing is, “Who pays?” For many journals run by traditional, for-profit publishers, usually the library pays. For many open access online journals, the author pays.

Scientists don’t want to pay out of pocket. This is a legitimate concern, because the article processing charges can be thousands of dollars (though not all are). Many have argued that funding agencies should ultimately be the ones who pay, because they are sponsoring the research, and they have a vested interest in seeing the research published as widely as possible.

Many agencies have taken up this cause, and have polices that require open access publication.

Still... this seems a long and needlessly complicated path for the money to take. Researchers have to write grants, budget for an unknown number of papers, which then have to go to the journal.

Why don’t funding agencies start their own open access journals?

The rule would be simple: If you have research supported by the funding agency, it’s free to publish open access in that agency’s journal.

If your research is supported by other agencies, you’d pay an article fee.

I wonder if funding agencies might actually save money by having their own publishing arms. They wouldn’t have to worry about the budgeting for the publication fees. It would simplify both the writing and review of grant proposals.

Most funding agencies already have the infrastructure to publish stuff. After all, they publish reports and calls for proposal and so on all the time. They have connections to peer reviewers, because they use them to review grant proposals.

Some government agencies have had their own journals for a long time. Canada’s NRC Research Press is one example. I don’t know those journals payment system, although I think most are using the “library pays” subscription model. It might have the potential to be “house publisher” for scientists with Canadian federal funding.

HHMI, The Wellcome Trust, and the Max Planck Institute got into the publishing end of things with eLife. But they are just “supporting” the journal, rather than it being in house. There may be advantages to this, mainly editorial independence.

Photo by Steven Depolo on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

13 February 2015

The academic hierarchy has more snakes than ladders

It’s kind of been a disheartening week for data on faculty career hiring. In less than a week, a paper by Clauset and colleagues showed that in computer science, business, history, school prestige is a very good predictor of faculty hiring.

(O)nly 9 to 14% of faculty are placed at institutions more prestigious than their doctorate(.)

A few days later, similar data came out for the study of English.

Of the graduates who get tenure-track jobs, most end up at universities ranked lower than the ones they attended. Virtually no one moves up.

It’s not quite the Matthew effect, but it’s close.

Of course, when the school prestige carries so much clout, it is not surprising that the perceived “top” schools have a lot of their graduates take the few faculty jobs out there.

25% of institutions producing 71 to 86% of all tenure-track faculty(.)

Of course, I am sure that some will argue that this is fair, and that the most prestigious schools have that prestige way because they are the best. Maybe they are, but I am not convinced that they are that much better. Neither are Clauset and colleagues:

Under a meritocracy, the observed placement rates would imply that faculty with doctorates from the top 10 units are inherently two to six times more productive than faculty with doctorates from the third 10 units. The magnitude of these differences makes a pure meritocracy seem implausible, suggesting the influence of nonmeritocratic factors like social status.

It’s disheartening on so many levels. It means that programs in lower ranked schools, and students in them, are engaged in busy work, and not making meaningful contributions to academia.

It suggests that there are probably similar prestige effects happening at the lower levels of education: so they way you get into a top doctoral program, you might have to get into a top undergraduate program, and so on. So higher education, instead of being a leveler, is reinforcing hierarchies.

External links

Where Do English Ph.D.’s Get Jobs? It Depends on Where They Studied.

Clauset A, Arbesman S, Larremore DB. 2015. Systematic inequality and hierarchy in faculty hiring networks. Science Advances 1(1): e1400005. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1400005

Photo by Travis on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

09 February 2015

Analyzing the UTRGV Vaqueros logo, or: Who was that tanned man?

The UTRGV mascot was unveiled... at 4:00 pm on Friday afternoon. I do not think the timing of this release was accidental. After the uproar that followed the announcement of the “Vaqueros” name, I think someone hoped that late Friday afternoon would provide a “soft launch” for the logo.


I like the look of the logo overall. The horse and rider look dynamic and distinctive. It reads well from a distance.

There is one thing I absolutely love about this logo. It's a little Easter egg that shows a very sharp, professional graphic designer did this. There is a map of Texas hidden in the negative space of the horse’s front and back legs. That is just a detail that delights.


In the full colour version of the logo, the rider looks like he’s had a spray on tanning mishap. Sort of like Ross in the Friends episode, “The One with Ross’s Tan.”

Our female athletes got ignored. We have dozens of alternate logos, and there are no Vaqueras. Not even a team name in any of the zillion logo variants.

Our friends at Brownsville got short changed. Again. Most seriously, several of the logo variants have the outline of the state of Texas, and a single star in the Valley... pretty much right on Edinburg, where UTPA is. Either there should be a star for each campus, or no stars.

On a minor note, the UTRGV colours are supposed to be orange, green (UTPA’s heritage colour) and blue (UTB’s heritage colour). But in the full colour logo, the navy blue it so dark that it doesn’t read as blue.

Some people have said there are some similarities with the Texas Tech Mascot, the Red Raiders. Both have a man on horseback.

I personally don’t see this as a big problem. The colours, poses, letters... There is no way the two would ever be confused.

The lettering looks very similar to the type used for the current UTPA athletics workdmark, and to other institutions. Both have big chunky slab type, with a spikey bit emerging from the top left.

Overall, the logo is sharp, but it’s a shame that it doesn’t show awareness of the criticisms of the Vaqueros name, and the regional tensions that have been brewing because of it.

05 February 2015

The Zen of Presentations, part 67: Lessons from Left Shark

The real winner of the 49th Super Bowl was not a football team.

It was the left shark.

Katy Perry performed at halftime flanked by two dancers in shark outfits. The right shark’s moves were crisp, timed, and coordinated with the music.

The left shark’s moves were... hell, let’s just say it, left shark forgot the routine they all rehearsed. He just kind of waggled around and hoped.

But who did the people remember? Nay, who did the people embrace? The precise, professional right shark? No! The people fell for left shark.

In less than a week, left shark has entered the pop culture hall of fame.

Left shark is commemorated in t-shirts.

Left shark’s dance is made into a flipbook.

And “Dance like nobody’s watching” has been replaced in the vocabulary.

Even I, who did not watch the Super Bowl at all, found myself saying earlier this week, “I’m left shark today.” Meaning, “I just can’t get it together, and I don’t really care.”

People loved left shark because they related to left shark. Left shark wasn’t perfect, but the dance was genuine, and it was endearing. People responded to its humanity fishanity. Left shark was a trooper, and not about to let a little uncertainty with the dance routine stop it. The show must go on.

Pixar artist Emma Coates wrote that one of their first rules storytelling is:

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

We admire left shark for trying more we admire right shark for its success.

The lesson from left shark for presenters is that your presentation doesn’t have to be letter perfect. It doesn’t have to be polished. If you are willing to laugh at yourself a little, being the imperfect, authentic you will take you a long way.

Sorry, Garr Reynolds. Sorry, Nancy Duarte. But...

01 February 2015

Comments for second half of January 2015

Small Pond Science has a look at science crowdfunding, which was partly informed by the PLOS ONE paper I contributed to on the subject.

The PLOS ONE paper also makes an appearance in a substantive article on science crowdfunding that appeared in several Australian newspapers, including The Age:

When crowdfunding sites first appeared about 2009, many scientists pooh-poohed the notion of raising research money through them, theorising that only those projects with gimmicky mass-market appeal – which they called “panda science” – would attract attention.

But that idea has been debunked.

In the first major study on crowdfunding in the sciences, which was published in December in PLoS One, the study's authors found that the online audience was willing to fund a wide variety of projects, even those in areas such as statistics or little-known invertebrates - which typically aren’t considered sexy.

What seemed to factor more in the success of a project was whether a researcher was able to develop a sufficient fan base. Being able to connect with a large audience through outlets such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube appeared to correlate with increased levels of funding.