Sunday, April 25, 2010

Subject-specific grade inflation

I had a very enjoyable visit to the University of Missouri-Columbia a couple of weeks ago to give a seminar. The visit included both Tiger Tracks ice cream made on campus and a fine dinner overlooking the Missouri River. I also got a lot of good comments when I presented my college mismatch paper co-authored with my student Nora Dillon (which is not quite yet at the point of getting posted on my web page).

While I was there Cory Koedel, an assistant professor at Missouri trained by Julian Betts at UCSD, told me about a paper of his that compares the grade distributions of undergraduates in various majors. You can find the paper here. Figure 1 in the paper pretty much tells the story: while there may be grade inflation everywhere, there is really, really, really a lot of grade inflation in undergraduate education programs.

Here's the rest of the story from the abstract:
This paper formally documents a startling difference in the grading standards between education departments and other academic departments at universities – undergraduate students in education classes receive significantly higher grades than students in all other classes. This phenomenon cannot be explained by differences in student quality or structural differences across departments (i.e., differences in class sizes). Drawing on evidence from the economics literature, the differences in grading standards between education and non-education departments imply that undergraduate education majors, the majority of whom become teachers, supply substantially less effort in college than non-education majors. If the grading standards in education departments were brought in line with those found in other major academic departments, student effort would be expected to increase by at least 10-16 percent.
My take is that grades serve several useful purposes. If everyone gets the same grade, those purposes are not served. Thus, education schools that give (essentially) every student an A in every class are not doing either the students or the broader public any favors.


Jason Kerwin said...

I'm surprised that humanities departments don't have more of a rightward shift in their grade distributions. My anecdotal experience with history and English is that the classes are much easier than in, say, economics.

fortyquestions said...

The problem of high grades in schools of education has been longstanding:

Grading Practices in Undergraduate Education Courses: Are the Standards Too Low?
Author(s): Robert M. Weiss and Glen R. Rasmussen
Source: The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Mar., 1960), pp. 143-149

Look at the grading in that paper. In the 1950s, education schools were already grading well over 0.5 GPA greater than other schools (if my memory of that paper is correct).