Thursday, February 20, 2014

Median Grade Reporting Leads to Middling Grades...and Confusion

For three years, I’ve tried to convince myself that Dartmouth’s inclusion of median grades on our transcripts makes some sense. There must be some discernible benefit, I’ve told myself, to students, or at least to the institution as a whole; if not, why would the board have ever implemented the policy? Now that I’m applying to law schools, my latent frustration with the idea of median grades has reached a tipping point.

Obviously, the Board believed that the inclusion of median grades on transcripts would serve as an effective weapon against grade inflation at Dartmouth. In this regard, the policy can only be described as a failure; since 1994, the average overall GPA has increased from 3.25 to 3.33 as of 2001. Recording median grades on students’ transcripts is Dartmouth’s way of conveniently deflecting responsibility for grade inflation to its students. The policy is an example of the administration papering over the problem; it exacerbates grade inflation, facilitates easy class selection, and encourages a culture of academic mediocrity.

All of these problems are linked. The median grade system urges students to seek out classes with A and A- medians so that they can skate by while achieving higher GPAs than those that take classes with lower medians. Even worse, professors are given license to unilaterally implement their own grading systems, which only makes grades more meaningless. I’ve had professors tell me that if the median isn’t an A or A-, then they have failed as educators; on the other hand, I’ve had professors tell me on the first of class that only two A’s would be given out. The latter group of professors, who try to keep their median grades low, in order to stave off the ire of administrators or department heads, believe that median grade reporting solves any problems associated with their approach. Moreover, some classes (especially sciences) also have quotas for each letter grade, so students can get exactly the same grades as a student the year before me in the same class, but get a completely different grade. Because the GPA system remains unchanged, an A- in a class with a B+ median will always look better than a B+ in class with a B median. Sure, graduate schools might take notice of the median grades, but they still calculate your GPA in the same fashion. Mental asterisks can only do so much.

More importantly, median grades sustain the middling tendency whereby it becomes relatively easy for most students to reach the B+/A- mark with a reasonable amount of effort, but extremely difficult to actually make the next leap to an A. In other words, grade inflation at Dartmouth rewards the average student at the expense of the “exceptional” (most syllabi use this word to describe work meriting an A) student. At Dartmouth, largely because of median grade reporting, grade inflation is more about grade distribution then it is overall inflation. It’s grade inflation on a bell curve --- everyone is pushed toward the middle, but the middle is artificially elevated.

If I were paid as a consultant to graduate schools, I could by no means reliably distinguish between a difficult course selection and a schedule loaded with what many would call “lay-ups” based solely on the median grades reported for the class that term. And, if I can’t do it, how would an admissions officer be able to do so? For instance, according to median grades, my HIST 59 class was comparable in difficulty to ENGS 11 because both had median grades of A-. However, I did approximately eight hours of work total during the entire term exploring the various technologies used by the Department of Homeland Security, while I did maybe twenty times that amount of work studying the History of Warfare. But, the consensus on inGenius Prep’s staff of over 45 former admissions officers from elite graduate schools is that admissions committees love Dartmouth transcripts.

The fact that admissions officers seriously value those median grade statistics is really frightening. Not only do they spend very little time reviewing your file, but they also seem to think they can reliably glean information about the strength of your schedule from these median grade reports. If Dartmouth intended for median grades to serve as some indication of the strength of a student’s course selection, they should also include the cumulative median grade for all classes each term so that there is a baseline for comparison. Although I am by no means advocating this as a solution, it would undoubtedly be an improvement from the status quo.

Despite my strong bias, I believe that the only solution is no solution. Everyone should just get over the fact that grade inflation is inevitable, and not necessarily such a terrible thing. Schools across the country are always going to try to improve their reputations and put their students in the best position to attain admission into graduate programs and top jobs. Just the other day, one of my friends from a state school in Florida was lamenting the fact that the school had just changed its grade policy so that an A- no longer counted the same GPA value as an A. Oh, and my other friends there have near-perfect GPAs and haven’t been to a physical classroom in two years because they take their classes online.
These sliding grading scales are ubiquitous. Ivy League schools just tend to get more heat for it. However, their impetus for grade inflation is not quite the same. Dartmouth admits 12.6% of its applicants, and approximately 35% of all high school valedictorians. Is it really a surprise that these kids are getting good grades? If Dartmouth is admitting exceptional students, why would it not expect to see exceptional grades?

In three classes at Dartmouth, I earned a 94, a 95, and a 95, and received A-‘s in all three along with an explanation from the professor that the cut-off for an A was one point higher than I had earned. This type of lack of uniformity both within and across departmental boundaries makes GPA figures even more worthless. These seemingly inconsequential inconsistencies in grading policy add up, especially when they are on paper in front of an admissions officer who is tasked with wading through various grade-inflating perks to evaluate candidates. Certainly, these admissions officers will take into account the disparity between academic reputations when evaluating candidates, but they could never possibly keep track of all of the intricacies of grade inflation. To compound the problem, Dartmouth throws them a whole new set of median grades so that you can be judged, albeit inaccurately and unfairly, against your peers, while another candidate is not weighed down by such comparisons.

Median grades could only begin to even be partially effective if every school recorded them on transcripts, along with some kind of cumulative median grade for each term as I mentioned before and changes to the GPA system. But, it would still only chip away at the tip of the iceberg. Nothing will work because grade inflation is inevitable. The crux of the issue is that fighting too hard against grade inflation would disadvantage the student; meanwhile, not doing anything about the problem gets you a bad rap in the eyes of graduate schools, employers, and the media. In that vein, Dartmouth’s unique attempt at “fighting grade inflation” makes quite a bit of sense. They’re just spinning their wheels.