22 April 2010

Grade inflation

The Economist: Free Exchange | A.S. | Confessions of a grade inflator

MARKING exams and essays is a thankless job. It is tedious and time-consuming, and the feedback is never positive. Students often complain and demand remarking. “I hope you’re happy,” an MBA candidate once shouted at me, “the macro grade you gave me just cost me a career at Goldman!”

Catherine Rampell finds the grade inflation epidemic is worse at private universities, especially in humanities. This may be because private schools, especially in the humanities, tend to assign more frequent and involved assignments, from a grading perspective. Large public universities rely more on exams which can be graded quickly and objectively.
Yes, large universities do, but that's because they have more papers to grade. The total amount of time marking exam results remains more-or-less constant (and constantly high) so there is still incentive to cut corners unless it is a straight multiple choice only test.
There still must be a distribution of grades, to reward worthy students and encourage hard work. But the grade distribution tends to be very tight. In my experience, students must do something really terrible to get less than a B.
We may be better off if we made this explicit. That's more or less how it works in my graduate courses: you get an A for mastering the material, a B for mostly understanding it, and a C for anything less. You do not get credit for any courses you got a C in. It might be a lot harder to inflate grades if the only choices were "fail," "pass," and "pass with distinction." There would be other downsides, of course — lack of granularity when comparing students is the most glaring — but it's worth considering, especially if it is already the de facto system in many courses.
Ms Rampell seems to suggest that some universities give students higher grades to impart some job-market advantage to future alumni. It’s an idea I’ve heard before, typically from people who completed their undergraduate degrees at elite universities, but never went to graduate school (or went for a professional rather than a research degree). I can only speak to my own experiences as a grade inflation enabler. But ensuring my students a well-paid, prestigious job was the furthest thing from my mind. Professors I knew were also too pre-occupied with their own careers to purposely inflate their twenty-year old students’ grades just so they could land a good internship at an investment bank. The only objectives I had, grading any assignment, were to be fair and objective, and to minimise complaints.
This is the laziness bias I mentioned earlier this week in the context of journalism. Don't look for complicated conspiracies if the situation can be easily explained by people trying to make their own lives easier.
But now there might be a solution: out-sourcing. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Virtual-TA, a service of a company called EduMetry Inc., took over. The goal of the service is to relieve professors and teaching assistants of a traditional and sometimes tiresome task—and even, the company says, to do it better than TA's can.

The graders working for EduMetry, based in a Virginia suburb of Washington, are concentrated in India, Singapore, and Malaysia, along with some in the United States and elsewhere. They do their work online and communicate with professors via e-mail. The company advertises that its graders hold advanced degrees and can quickly turn around assignments with sophisticated commentary, because they are not juggling their own course work, too.
The out-sourced TAs, often stay-at-home mothers, have the expertise and time needed to provide thoughtful and detailed comments. There potentially are many benefits. It could be a more efficient allocation of the under-utilised, high-skilled labour potential of the out-sourced TA. Out-sourcing grading also gives professors and graduate students more time to practice their comparative advantage: classroom teaching and research. It can even provide a better education for students. Some professors claim they assign more long writing assignments as a result, and students receive careful, prompt feedback. It should also reduce grade inflation.
I love this idea.

The biggest drawback in my mind is that the out-sourced TAs are less familiar with exactly what was taught in the course.  Perhaps this can be alleviated as more lectures are recorded and available for viewing online.

There's also a reason that TAs usually gather in one spot —in my experience with the professor — to grade papers. It would be more difficult to keep everyone on the same page if you have a half dozen TAs in different cities who've never met. I suppose this is mostly a problem for courses with more than one grader though, and if you had full-time, professional graders perhaps there would be fewer of those.
The virtual TAs do not mark papers anticipating a flurry of complaints for every point deducted.
That was one advantage of latest course I TA'ed: the lecturer made it very clear that it was his responsibility to deal with students bitching about their grades, not ours. We were free to mark papers sternly and fairly without having to worry about complaints.

Another policy that I've seen as both a grader and a student: if a student requests a question be re-graded and it isn't obviously the grader's error, then the entire exam will be re-graded. They're left to wonder what the net effect on their grade will be if they fight for that half point they want.
Naturally there's also a downside. [...] Also, grading and teaching assistantships provide an important source of funding for graduate students. If cheaper virtual TAs become more popular, some graduate students may find themselves out-sourced before they enter the labour market.
Often times when people like me defend free trade we hear something along the lines of "easy for you to say, you don't work in a garment factory or a steel mill." Since we're now talking about outsourcing jobs I have held and will probably hold again, let me say loud and clear: outsourcing is still worth it.

You can't run an economy based on what is good for producers. Things must run to fill consumer desires.

If graduate students are worthy of support then just give them some money rather than rigging systems up to provide them with grading sinecures. It would be more efficient economically and provide better results for the students.

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