Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Elite Education and Grade Expectations: Everyone a Winner

Many parents who can afford private education for their children spend enormous amounts insuring their children get placed in the best schools.  This behavior is often interpreted as driving their children to excellence in performance so they will be truly exceptional as adults.  There are a number of observers who have suggested an alternate interpretation for this behavior.  The parents may not be driven so much by the desire for success for their children as by the fear of failure.  In a society that believes the myth that the United States is a meritocracy, then it is embarrassing for an economically successful parent to raise a child that does not merit an equivalent place in the economy.  Such an occurrence might call into question the qualifications of the parent.

In the latter interpretation of the elite educational path, children receive the support of tutors, test preparation specialists, and teachers who realize their jobs depend on the performance of the students they teach.  In addition, they are enmeshed in a peer population designed to keep them from drifting away from the preordained path.  The ultimate target is entry into an elite university.  Are our most renowned and most expensive universities dedicated to producing the best educational experience and allowing exceptional students to demonstrate their capabilities in competition with other excellent students—or are they just the terminus of an extensive support system focused on excluding failure?

Support for the failure-avoidance viewpoint comes from data collected by Stuart Rojstaczer who has been tracking grade inflation in US schools for a number of years.  Grade inflation has occurred throughout higher education, but it is particularly evident in the more elite schools.  Why is it that everyone now seems to get a good grade?

An article in The Economist provided the results of Rojstaczer’s study of the trends in average grades in Ivy League schools.

Most of these schools do not provide this data directly, so Rojstaczer must deduce his numbers from indirect sources.  The article does include this Harvard data point:

“In 1950, Mr Rojstaczer estimates, Harvard’s average grade was a C-plus. An article from 2013 in the Harvard Crimson, a student newspaper, revealed that the median grade had soared to A-minus: the most commonly awarded grade is an A.”

The article suggests this explanation for why A grades have become so common:

“Universities pump up grades because many students like it. Administrators claim that tough grading leads to rivalry and stress for students. But if that is true, why have grades at all? Brilliant students complain that, thanks to grade inflation, little distinguishes them from their so-so classmates. Employers agree. When so many students get As, it is hard to figure out who is clever and who is not.”

Consider the average grade for Princeton in the chart above.  It increases over time but then seems to stabilize at a slightly lower value in recent years.  An article by Ariel Kaminer in the New York Times carries this intriguing title: Princeton Is Proposing to End Limit on Giving A’s.  Back in 2004, Princeton tried to stem the inflation trend by imposing a limit on the number of A grades that could be issued in a given class to no more the 35%.

“….the university….drew widespread attention in 2004 when it first sought to cap grades. At the time, close to 50 percent of Princeton students were getting A-range grades in their classes. The university hoped that other colleges would follow its lead.”

As the chart above indicates, that did not happen.  What did happen is that the Princeton students became angry at having to participate in a system where the top grade indicated top performance, while students at other schools where provided the top grade for average performance.  How could that be fair?  Princeton was charging them as much money as the other schools, yet it was not providing what they thought they had paid for.

Kaminer tells us that Princeton is considering ending its policy of trying to provide clear differentiation between students on the basis of academic performance.  Apparently, that is no longer the role of an elite university.

What kind of a system of higher education are we running when anything less than an A is considered failure?  Schools are supposed to put pressure on students to perform to the best of their abilities.  Instead, we have students putting pressure on schools to provide them the A grade they need to graduate certified as “worthy of earning a lot of money.”

What if similar pressures exist at the high schools that feed our elite universities?  What about the grammar schools that feed our elite high schools?  Are we providing advantaged students with floors below which they will not be allowed to fall?

Are we managing a meritocracy—or are we propagating an aristocracy?

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