Down Grades

Do you know who loves the US News and World Report College Ranking index?  Anyone who finds themselves in the top 25 of one of the lists.  Do you know who hates the US News and World Report College Ranking index?  Everyone else

This list, which has been out for years, is a powerful example of pandering to an audience, hoping to sell to parents and perspective students while aiming to generate advertising revenue from schools who make the cut.  Try the “Custom Fit” tool, if you want to use the rankings to find the perfect College for you!  (Has anyone calculated the use of such a tool to completion rates?  Hmmm) 

The judgment seems unbiased as it is not sponsored by a school until you start to look at almost any aspect of the index, from the measures to the weighting to the findings…it is a mess of misinformation, spurious statistical findings, and appalling “journalism.”  Does everyone believe that Princeton is the #1 University on the planet?  Of course not.  To say so is as arguable as saying the ‘86 Bears were the greatest team of all time or that kale is the best diet food on the planet. There are far too many variables to ever make such a claim.  We have no ability to measure and rank the same things as equal, important, nor fair.  These are a few of the reasons it is no surprise to most people that the lists feature the richest schools each and every year.

But the list may actually be an important example of something else.  Something far more important.  Something educators use, rely on, or lament about, depending on perspective and perception.  The College Ranking index may be a perfect representation for GPA and Grades.

A quick Google search of the problem with grades will provide a lot of ammunition. From subjectivity to grade inflation, problems with grading abound.

For instance, it is not overly controversial to suggest that grades are inflated today.  Occurring earlier and earlier, more students (and parents) are demanding better grades which they now see as the currency of higher education.  This paradigm flows into higher education with students increasingly “demanding” better grades, with reasoning stemming from effort to a plea for help getting into graduate school.  As schools value grades more than just about any other facet of society, it makes sense that grades have become currency in education contexts.  After all, you must have a specific GPA to get into graduate school, you must have achieved a specific grade (sometimes from a specific institution type) in order to transfer credits, and everything from honor’s societies to special graduation recognitions are given to those who jump through all of the hoops appropriately.  We may not talk about the notion that status likely will not follow those high-gpa students into life, nor does it equate to being smarter than a student with lesser grades, but for the current student, grades and GPA are an index of effort to be sure. 

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There are some who will tell you that grades are a perfect representation of student achievement, even potentially of learning.  At the same time, there are others who will tell you that grades mean very little.  When the issues of grade inflation, subjectivity, and imperfect assessment are discussed, it seems hard to assure that grades are the end-all, be-all of achievement.  Adding to the confusion are non-academic, hiring directors who have mixed reactions to grades.  Some say a student seeking their first job should include the GPA if it is above a 3.0.  Some say they would not expect to see a GPA on the resume at all.  (It seems to be very sector based – investment banks care whereas Silicon Valley companies do not.)  But interestingly most hiring managers agree that grades do not matter at all for job #2.  It seems the GPA (arguably and index of indexes) does not translate to employment success. 

One reason for this may be the subjectivity of grading.  Even how grades are generated, typically at the complete discretion of the professor, is all over the map.  Some weight, some curve, some give extra credit, some inflate, some put outcomes over numeric values, some base evaluation off of a single exam, others weigh participation as heavily as course outcomes, and on and on.  In other words, grades are different to almost everyone.  Yet we all seem to buy into the representative nature of grading, ignoring the elephant in the room.

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Some will point out the flaws in grading on a curve, like the assumption that there is such a thing as an “average” thinker, student, or person, while others argue that there has to be an average so as to find the exceptional, meaning any strategy which uses relativity is ideal.  Some students might benefit a great deal from curved grading, while others, not necessarily less capable or even learned others, will struggle unfairly

So why point out such an obvious problem to most, reasonable people?  We all know that grades are so uber-dependent on every professor being completely objective, on every assessment being perfectly written so as not to bias nor advantage any set of students, and on every system being implemented perfectly, it is flawed from the start.  Why pile on?  After all, using almost any grading structure at all will see students start to game the system, ultimately leading to high scores, but low levels of learning. 

And therein lies the point.  Learning is the reason.  The ultimate sign of “connectedness” for a student is to connect with learning.  We have research that students who aren’t afraid of grades are more likely to try, to think laterally, and to be creative.  We know that grading and testing can cause very real anxiety for some, producing hormones that actually make thinking impossible.  We also know that grades matter less and less as a person gets away from their education.  There are no GPA’s on headstones as everyone moves toward sameness. 

But, when an educator (at ANY level) focuses on learning, it changes everything.  If our students were consumed with learning like some are with grades, we would be up to our eyeballs in entrepreneurs, solutions, and problem-solving.  If every professor committed to learning over teaching or grading or assessing, we would see very different outcomes for rates of retention, persistence, and graduation.  Far better than, “What’s your GPA” is the question, “What have you learned?”  Of course, learning’s definition can be debated as well.  But we’ll leave that for another blog.

If you think that the US News and World Report College rankings are the best metric we have for evaluating where a person should go to school, then I guess we will have to agree to disagree.  But, if you feel they are biased, unfair, immeasurable salesmanship, then look at grades through that same lens.  Just as our colleges and universities deserve far better than that silly index, our students deserve to learn more than being graded.

Good luck and good learning.