Looking for answer to grade inflation in all the wrong places

Thursday columnist and economics lecturer Mark Witte is correctly concerned that higher education is misidentifying grade inflation as improved teaching, but Witte doesn’t present a viable alternative.

Agreed: There isn’t an objective way to draw distinctions among student performances, but there are far, far better ways than he proposes.

Witte needs to go have a chat with Prof. Ed Rossow up in civil engineering. While he’s there, he should drop in on Profs. Barbara Lewis, Ray Krizek, Charles Dowding or Surendra Shah. If the Technology Institute is too far north for him, he should find Profs. Aldon Morris in sociology, Henry Binford in history, Michael Stein in mathematics or Michael Roloff in communication studies.

Witte’s got some things to learn about educating and evaluating students, and these people can teach him.

The purpose of education is transmitting the material and the skills to use it. The purpose of evaluating students is to determine how well each student has mastered the material, not their examination performance relative to the class.

That bears repeating to Witte: The faculty member’s job is to transmit the material to, and evaluate the mastery of, each individual student. Turning that around for Witte: If the student has mastered the material well they deserve the A, regardless of the performance of anyone else in the room.

The question is not how to distribute grades. It is how to effectively measure each student’s mastery. Witte proposes using the wrong scale to measure the wrong things.

One can take any data set at all, find the mean, divide it up into standard deviations and spew that information all over the place. If all Witte’s grades are in the 80s and 90s, I’m sure we can find some way to fail the folks with an 83 or less.

The numbers don’t lie, do they?

They do if they don’t consider what an 83 really means on that exam. If it’s a cream puff of an exam, it might really be a D. If it’s anything like what I faced at Northwestern at the hands of those listed above, it could well be a B-.

After an exam, Rossow would write the scores on the blackboard, to a reasonable scale too, for all the class to see. It was usually pretty easy to see where the grade breaks were. If eight of the 14 of us were in the 90s or so, all eight got As. If only two of us were, then only two got As. Because these exams of his were so thorough he, and we, could pretty easily distribute the grades. Rossow’s examinations were the most thorough and demanding I ever took, including 32 hours of professional licensing exams. And I’ve silently blessed him and the others countless times since.

Don’t tell me my As in his classes, or at NU for that matter, were inflated.