Capone: Dartmouth’s Grading System Gets an F

Enforced medians undermine the spirit of academia

by Matthew Capone | 5/5/22 4:05am

To put it bluntly, Dartmouth’s grading system has failed. Enforcing medians is hypocritical for a college that purportedly encourages academic success and empowerment but more importantly, as a student, enforced medians are also disappointing. Many of my professors have expressed a similar disappointment with the system too.

Having an enforced median system in some departments is a classic example of what I learned in ECON 1, “The Price System: Analysis, Problems and Policies”: misaligned incentives. Under enforced medians, success is prescribed a set limit — for example, only 10% of students may receive an A, and 30% receive a B. Consequently, students seek “layup” classes — courses that are perceived as easier because they lack an enforced median — to avoid a hit to their grade point average, taking classes they aren’t interested in. The result: a system that penalizes smart students for being smart, discourages intellectual curiosity, actively incentivizes taking the path of least resistance (in this case, the highest GPA-yielding course load) and erodes the mental health of the student body.

The departmental enforced median system imposes two primary penalties on students: academic and social. Not only does an enforced median system inhibit the success of students, but it also actively creates an environment of hostility in which one person’s success is at your detriment.

In a vain effort to fight grade inflation, a system of enforced medians arbitrarily limits the number of students who are able to excel. Another way of phrasing this is that it unfairly punishes the total number of students who don’t earn the grade they deserve. If ten students conclude a term with grades above a 93%, but only five of them can receive an “A,” five of them are wrongly punished.

We see then the dichotomy of many Dartmouth classes: the best-case scenario is a culture of hyper-competition in which students prioritize learning enough material to do better than the person next to them, rather than prioritizing learning the material for the purposes of learning, which is why many of us chose to attend college.

The very first core value at Dartmouth, as listed on the College’s website, concludes with the clause “a culture of collaboration.” Yet how, I wonder, can a collaborative culture exist when some departments retain an evaluative structure that actively encourages and incentivizes competition?

And the worst-case scenario? It sends a message that no matter how much effort you put in, no matter how many hours you study, no matter how much time you spend reading and taking notes, the academic system at Dartmouth is a zero-sum game.

To this I ask: why pit the smart students against the smart students?

Enforced medians also dissuade students from challenging themselves. Often, the classes that have the lowest enforced medians — typically a B or B+ — are introductory courses, which have imposed medians for the explicit purpose of “weeding out” students. I can’t even begin to count the number of people I know, including myself, who have been discouraged from further pursuing a subject because of an unpleasant academic experience with an introductory course in a certain department. 

Not only does an enforced median system erode intellectual curiosity, but it also reduces intellectuality writ large. After analyzing grading systems, economists Pradeep Dubey and John Geanakoplos concluded that systems like enforced medians disincentivize studying. “Absolute grading is better than grading on a curve,” they note. Regardless of how entrenched in a given plan-of-study you are, Dubey’s and Geanakoplos’s findings indicate that students are less likely to put in as much effort into a class with an enforced median if they already know the chances of them receiving, say, a B+, are exponentially higher. Enforced medians don’t just suppress a student’s grades in one class but also oppress their will to study and their desire to learn. A student knowing that they likely won’t receive the grade they deserve if they put the commensurate effort into a class inhibits their capability to grow as a learner, which becomes especially problematic and dangerous when recognizing that learning doesn’t end with the term. Part of education is learning how to learn so that one can become a lifelong learner. Enforced medians, at least in part, do away with this.

Another flagrant externality of enforced medians manifests via mental health: a study by Swedish statistician Björn Högberg found that enforced medians/deflationary curves can increase stress and reduce academic self-esteem among students.

At a school in which the majority of students came from the top 10% percent of their graduating classes, inhibiting students’ success could be especially detrimental to those who haven’t ever received anything below an A in their life before. This isn’t to say that failure is bad, or that a B+ isn’t good enough. The real issue is that Dartmouth, as a community of high-achieving students, shouldn’t have to further stratify its accomplished undergraduate body for the purpose of appearing academically rigorous.

What do you expect when you put together a thousand of some of the brightest minds in the country? Mediocracy? I struggle to understand how students, independent of any forced grading system, achieving above-average success could negatively impact Dartmouth’s reputation. Indeed, by bringing together some of the most intellectually capable students and professors, theoretically, everyone should actually be performing even better.

It is, simply put, baffling as to why a university wouldn’t want its students to succeed. Getting an A at Dartmouth isn’t a bad thing. It’s a sign of success.

An Ivy League institution, a center of excellence, of academic rigor and incredible people, should be anything but ashamed of the fact that its students, under its tutelage, can actually find success.

It’s worth noting that many of our peer institutions like Harvard University, Yale University, Cornell University, Princeton University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology conspicuously lack a system of enforced medians. Even when a 2013 Yale Ad Hoc Committee on Grading proposed recommending grade deflation policies, such as enforced medians, it was met with vociferous outcry by students and faculty alike. If they can do it, why can’t we?

Abolishing a system of enforced departmental medians is not synonymous with grade inflation. Do away with the hypocrisy and let your students find success, Dartmouth. They deserve it.

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