Verbum Ultimum: Mistaken on Inflation

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 5/28/15 8:04pm

In the hopes of effectively combating a perceived intellectual laziness at this school, the ad hoc committee on grade inflation, chaired by biology professor Mark McPeek, published a 16-page report detailing proposed fixes for grade inflation at the College. We find the proposal's content and attitude toward students to be patronizing and misguided, divorced from the realities of modern college life by the committee's ideological tilt.

The committee report cites student course assessment data indicating that students who report fewer hours per week spent on coursework also expect a higher grade in that course. In other words, a student who expects an A in a particular course reports having spent less time on that course outside of class than a student who expects a B. "Our own data show conclusively," the committee wrote, "that when students expect high grades, they are not motivated to work as hard as when they do not expect high grades." To derive any conclusions regarding students' motivation – or lack thereof – from data that are purely numerical is not only flawed but irresponsible. As many of us learned in our respective introductory statistics courses, correlation should not be confused with causation.

Further, committee members do not entertain the notion that students who specialize in various subjects can reasonably expect a higher grade without spending as much time on homework and assignments than they might in less familiar subjects. In such cases, any reported differences in time do not necessarily equate to a student's lack of motivation or a course's lack of rigor, but merely reflect varying talents. Reported time spent on coursework is a misleading proxy for academic effort. Moreover, the report fails to account for the bias inherent in statistics based on self-reporting. Few students at the College would claim that their time estimates on course assessments – which are voluntarily completed in exchange for early access to termly grades on BannerStudent – are informed by the diligent logging of hours spent on academics throughout the term.

More troubling is the report's suggestion that the College abolish the non-recording option. First, not all students who elect the NRO expect to receive an NR in that course, and thus the group of students who self-reported an expected NR does not include all students who elected the option. Moreover, for the students who do expect to receive the NR, pouring time into the course after it becomes clear you will not meet your goal is wasteful. The committee dismisses the NRO's purpose – to encourage students to take advantage of difficult classes outside of their comfort zones – as "high-minded." The report proclaims that the course assessment data show the NRO's true colors – a way for students "to drastically reduce their effort in a course." We are shocked that members of the faculty would write off and belittle students with such cynicism. We believe that the benefits – encouraged intellectual exploration, greater academic freedom and possible leeway for student-athletes, student employees or those struggling with mental health issues – outweigh the potential for some students to use the NRO as a coasting mechanism. Students who wish to explore unfamiliar or challenging subjects should not be forced to gamble with their transcripts and fear the prospect of a withdrawal.

We appreciate that the report explicitly disavows proposals to force faculty to set target medians, among other similar measures. Yet the overall report is blinded by its insistence on preventing "low-performing students" from getting grades that they do not deserve. Attempting to return grade distributions to their 1970s levels with no consideration for how the expectations of American university students have changed since then – including an increased focus on extracurricular commitments, despite the committee's apparent contempt for student passions beyond doing homework – fails to actually address any perceived deficiency in academic rigor. The grade a student receives in a class does not necessarily reflect that course's difficulty or intellectual value. Difficult courses can have A and A-minus medians. Unfulfilling courses that fail to live up to the College's excellence in teaching can have medians that are much lower – and endless hours spent on a course can be indicative of poor teaching as much as student motivation. Just as determining which students are truly less deserving of the grades they receive is more complex than simple "hours-in" calculus, determining which professors could be structuring their courses better, engaging more with students and teaching more effectively is far more complicated than tracking termly medians.

Grade inflation is, without a doubt, an undesirable phenomenon. But doubling down on the traditional definitions of letter grades is a poor course of action. If the College chooses to pursue the measures recommended in this report in full, and the median grade drifts down to its rightful place at a B, fewer students will choose to spend their four undergraduate years in Hanover. Ultimately, it is naïve to think that high school applicants and their families will stomach the College's high tuition if they can get a more fulfilling, well-rounded experience at our peer institutions – and a better transcript to boot. Grade inflation does not have to diminish the intellectual strength of Dartmouth – antagonizing and discouraging students from enjoying all that Dartmouth has to offer surely will.