Bowdoin grading practices: What we say vs. what we do
To paraphrase Mark Twain, grading, like sausage making,
should not be watched too closely. It's an inherently subjective and imprecise
weighing of many aspects of student performance. It's highly quantified
in some fields, inescapably qualitative in others. And it serves multiple
purposes, with no consensus about their relative importance.
Other articles in this week's Orient highlight Bowdoin's
grade inflation. This one documents a widespread deflation of standards:
As and Bs received for work that falls below the standards spelled out
in the College Catalogue. In 1998, following an earlier grading debate,
the faculty set high standards for A and B work:
"A, the student has mastered the material of the course
and has demonstrated exceptional critical skills and originality;
Some of us supported this wording in the hope that it would
counter grade inflation. It hasn't worked out that way. In 1997-98, 85
percent of all grades were As and Bs; last year the fraction was 87 percent.
At Bowdoin as in Lake Wobegon, nearly everyone is above average - and
To get a handle on the apparent gap between grading rhetoric
and practice, several Economics Department members surveyed faculty late
last fall. 82 colleagues responded, just under half of the fall teaching
staff. This article interprets their responses, without addressing basic
survey research issues such as sample biases and statistical significance.
Based on 81 faculty members' practices, deflated standards-i.e.
inflated grades-are nearly universal. 85 percent of respondents acknowledge
that they have given As to students who did not fully meet the Catalogue
description of A work; 80 percent say the same about Bs.
The responses indicate that deflated standards are not a
rarity. For 40 percent of responding faculty, at least one in ten A students
fall short of the Catalogue standard; for 20 percent of teachers, this
holds for at least one-quarter of As. In the case of Bs, for 48 percent
of respondents, at least one in ten B students falls short. And, for 31
percent of faculty, this holds for one-quarter or more of all Bs.
A few noteworthy patterns stand out in the responses. Although
the accompanying tables show that arts and humanities faculty award the
largest proportion of As and Bs, comparatively few of them (80 percent)
say they have given As for below-standard performance; and, just 15 percent
of the arts and humanities respondents give one-quarter or more such "below-standard-performance"
As. In contrast, math and science grades are comparatively low, even though
more math and science teachers (93 percent) give "undeserved"
As and fully 37 percent give at least one-quarter such As. Social science
grading falls in the middle. For below-standard Bs, there's a roughly
similar pattern across academic divisions.
The big question is why nearly all Bowdoin teachers violate,
and many routinely violate, "legislated" standards. Our open-ended
questions seeking explanations elicited diverse, thought provoking, and
often eloquent responses. Due to space limitations, I will indicate just
the most frequent responses from those teachers who award at least 25
percent of As and Bs to students with below-standard work.
More than half of those who award many below-standard As
stress that it is not reasonable to expect "exceptional creativity
and originality" in some courses, particularly at the introductory
level. From this perspective, the problem is with the Catalogue definition.
However, one-third of this group articulate strategic motives for giving
"easy" As. These rationales range from a frank desire for good
course evaluations and high enrollments to the common view that it is
not smart (or fair) to diverge too far from college-wide practice.
The search for systematic differences across the academic
ranks (non-tenure track, tenure track, tenured) turned up nothing dramatic
or statistically significant. For example, these self-reported data do
not support the hypothesis that tenure-track faculty "go easy"
on students to bolster their enrollments and teaching evaluations.
What practical insights can we take from the responses?
Most basically, the disparities in grading practices among
faculty and the divergence between Catalogue standards and common practice
argue for a broad stakeholder dialogue?including students?about appropriate
standards and how to apply them equitably and consistently, particularly
across disciplines and course levels.
Specifically, in the name of intellectual and moral integrity,
we should lower either grade distributions or the Catalogue standards
(or both). The solution will not be simple. For instance, keeping current
Catalogue standards but lowering grades would paradoxically require the
biggest downward adjustment in math and science, which already have lower
grades than the other divisions.
Note: The survey results, including responses to open-ended
questions, will be made available on a website.