Fixing What Should Be Broken: Grade Reform at Yale

This month, an ad hoc committee on grading at Yale issued its preliminary findings (pdf). The committee’s findings have stirred up some conversation about how exactly to fix what the committee finds is gross grade inflation for undergraduates across the university. This is hardly an isolated phenomenon – almost all schools inflate grades to some extent these days. When I did my student teaching at a high school in the suburbs of Phoenix, it was implicit that students did not fail. Some teachers joked that students must marvel at how their grades went up towards the end of the semester without any additional work on their part. What was happening was obvious. Failing students reflected either failure on the part of the teacher or failure on the part of the school as a whole – and nobody wanted either. Even more importantly, in an age of standardized testing and frequent measurement of “progress,” school funding and reputation, and teachers’ jobs, were always on the line. And so you did what you had to. We even set aside a whole day at the end of the school year for students who were behind to come in and do make-up work while everyone else stayed home. That’s probably the thing I love most about teaching: sitting in a room on the last day of school so the student who did the worst/least could give me a reason to give them a C.

But that’s a story for a separate post, because Yale is Yale. The money and reputation are here no matter what. And most of the students here are incredibly intelligent – even the legacy admissions might not be top tier, but probably still attended private schools with small class sizes and exceptional teachers. So what, exactly, is the fuss about? The report summarizes its findings pretty nicely here:

For many departments now there are in effect only three grades used: A, A-, and B+. For the less generous departments, B is added to this group. Yale is approaching the point, at least in some departments, in which the only grades are A and A-, which is close to having no grading.

This is the finding, and this has been labeled a problem by the committee. A problem which needs to be solved by grading students honestly, doling out Cs, Ds, and Fs, to prove that it’s fair. What I don’t fully get, though, is why grade at all? The only problem with being so “close to having no grading” is that there is still an attempt to grade. The university is so close to not having a grading system, and this report is calling for reforms to bring us back from the brink. But the committee is pushing in the wrong direction – we need to push the grading system over the cliff and never look back. Abolishing grades is really the only way forwards for students, but also for faculty – same as it ever was.

Instead, the committee makes a couple of recommendations.

Change from a letter system to a number/percentage system. The committee says “If, say, only three grades are used, A, A-, and B+, the choice between an A and an A- or an A- and a B+ is of considerable consequence, which is not true if one can use many numbers. The consequences of the unavoidable randomness that occurs in any grading system are less serious with more grading choices.” But that doesn’t solve the perceived problem. The problem isn’t that Yale only has A, A-, and B+ grades – it’s that Yale professors fail to use grades B through F. Changing from letter to number grading doesn’t do anything but lead to a preponderance of Yalies receiving 97s in all of their classes. Am I missing something in this solution?

Suggest distributed grading. This part is hilarious. The report says that distributions may violate some department’s policies and that the committee doesn’t want to impose on professors’ discretion, not to mention the inherent unfairness of grading on a distribution. And yet, it issues “guidelines” to departments that include 4-5% in the 60-69 range and 0-1% in the 59 (fail) range. As a former teacher to middle class youth headed to state school, I’m trying to imagine the outcry if every class of 30 Yale students had 1 or 2 close to failing, and it hurts my brain.

The clear solution, to me, is get rid of grading. Presumably, students at Yale are doing plenty of learning and doing plenty of work. The problem is just that they’re all receiving As for it. Rather than fight to maintain an ineffective grading system and hand out a few token Cs to verify the fairness, why not do away with it? The listed bad effects of grade inflation – cheapening of the grade, more difficult to interpret grades, etc. – all vanish with the grading system. If nobody is getting a worthless letter or number on their transcript, nobody will care what it’s supposed to mean. If you hire competent staff and foster a strong learning environment, you can be sure most of your students are “passing” – then just let the teachers teach and let the students work.

This is especially possible at Yale, where the classes are small, manageable, and demanding. Grades are, after all, a mechanism that makes measuring students’ abilities easier to do. But when classes are mostly seminar-sized, a professor that is involved in the class and aware of her surroundings could easily surmise who is struggling and who is succeeding. If she has students that are struggling, she can help them as much as is deemed necessary. Boom, no grades needed. Instead, there’s a system now where professors condense 13 weeks of conversations and one or two research essays into one of five letters. I really don’t see the point. If the grading system is so ineffective that there may as well be no grading, then let’s do it. Abolish the grading system, and we’ll be able to move on like nothing ever happened.

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