Strange Grading and the Hazards of Transparency

If you go this web site,
you can search the course roster at the University of Wisconsin and find out
what grades were given each semester for the last several years.  In
Spring 2011, the average grade for 792 students in Intermediate Organic
Chemistry was 2.8, a B-, while in Introduction to Education, 50 students
averaged 3.9, an A.  The Evolving Universe (in the Astronomy Department)
had 359 students, and they averaged 2.9, a B, while 722 students in Freshman
Composition hit 3.7, an A-.

The variation in grades across classes raises some uncomfortable questions of
grade inflation, instructional effectiveness, and selectivity, but that’s the
price of accountability.  More and more public institutions are being

…to make their records available regarding teaching assignments, adjunct
and graduate student labor, grades, graduation rates, etc.  The data are
accumulating, and two steps will follow.

First, interested parties with time and motive will begin to cull the data and
interpret it, frame it, and impart it to different audiences–to state
legislators and officials, donors, foundations, professional organizations,
watchdog groups, and the general public.  And two, the faculty and
administration will, one way or another, respond.  No doubt, the data will
contain some embarrassing facts and policies in place, such as high rates of
adjunct teaching and the light teaching loads of certain professors who don’t
otherwise demonstrate value to the university (securing outside grants, placing
graduate students in good tenure-track positions, etc.)  The first group
will contain investigators and whistle-blowers who wish to expose malpractice
and force reforms.  If they are wise, the second group will anticipate
their actions and prepare accordingly.

All too often, however, faculty members and their representatives have reacted
to the data accumulation defensively, as if information on what they do
constituted a threat to academic freedom.  But that pique will not stop
the circulation of numbers, nor will it prevent journalists and other people
who live and work outside the campus from drawing sharp conclusions from
them.  Indeed, in the next few years, one exposé after another will
follow, and professors and administrators will be engaged in a ceaseless
rearguard action.  They should begin now formulating rationales that will
carry weight off-campus, not just among their colleagues.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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2 thoughts on “Strange Grading and the Hazards of Transparency

  1. I think that transcripts should include not only the student’s grade, but the average grade of the class. That may not solve the problem of grade inflation, but it will make it a less serious problem.

  2. Regarding grade statistics: a couple of years ago, one university administration I am familiar with was pressuring its teachers who gave anything other than A’s, B’s, or C’s. (Faculty were to reduce D’s, F’s, Incompletes, and Withdrawals.)
    More generally, outside scrutiny of statistics may be a good thing unless those stats don’t reflect what people want a university to do. On the other hand, even if they do, watch for faculty and/or administrators to game the system to get good stats without necessarily solving the problem.

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