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

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