Monday, August 4, 2008

Grade compression

Only in the last few months, thanks in part to Catherine at Kitchen Table Math, have I become aware of how grade compression has permeated our grade schools.

My first experience with this phenomenon was over a dozen years ago, when I finished up my PhD and began adjuncting at local colleges.

While the consequences of grade compression in colleges and universities are probably similar to its consequences in grade schools--among other things, disfavoring the brightest students by clumping grades together into an ever smaller number of slots--the underlying forces, my experience suggests, are quite different.

On the one hand, I'd get emails from deans bemoaning the institution's rampant grade inflation and asking instructors to be sparing with A's. On the other hand, I'd get complaints from students who received anything below a B. Sometimes those students would successfully lobby the very deans who'd sent the emails, who'd then ask me to change C's to B's.

The only way to keep everyone happy--a key consideration for adjuncts, whose standing is largely a function of student evaluations, and whose renewal is at the pleasure of deans-- was to make B the new C (and D, and sometimes F), and compress all grades into a B- to A range.

So I'd reserve the A's for the two or three best students, including some I'd prefer to give A-'s to; translate the B's and B+'s to A-'s, B-'s to B+'s, and everything else to a B. It was more important, I felt, to make finer distinctions at the top than the bottom. That way, the very best might still gain some distinction--albeit not nearly as much as they once did.

After a 4-year hiatus from teaching, I've returned to find that my A-B grade scale is no longer compressed enough for many students...

But more on that in my next post.

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