Thursday, February 06, 2003

Not Making the Grade

This article about grade inflation struck a chord with me, since I have to deal with grade inflation on a daily basis. The following observation rang especially true:
Unfortunately, grade inflation is not costless. One consequence is that students are discouraged from taking science courses, where the nature of the subject matter has held down grade inflation, in favor of those in the humanities, where it is rampant. Over time, this has caused universities to drain resources from science programs.
Now, I don't know if it's actually true that resources have been drained from science programs (has there been a study?), but it definitely fits with my intuition and personal observation. Some disciplines, including my own, have a greater inherent resistance to grade inflation than others. It's easier to mark someone down for a clear error in math or graphing than to mark someone down for awkwardness (though not actual grammar errors) in writing. When there are some answers that are clearly right or wrong, not just a matter of opinion, grading standards are not as difficult to maintain.

Not surprisingly, the average grades are lower in economics and physics than any other department at my university (or so I've been told). And the students undoubtedly react by avoiding courses in subjects where the grading is known to be harder. If universities respond at all to the ebb and flow of student demand - and I think they do, though not with the speed and efficiency of for-profit organizations - then it's inevitable that resources will flow from the harder to the easier departments, other things equal. Of course, the other-things-equal assumption is important; if firms recognize the value of a good education in science and math, they will offer higher wages for students so educated, and that should increase the demand for the appropriate majors. Unfortunately, not all students are so far-sighted, and in any case, the grade differential still biases the selection of majors. Some students on the margin, who would have picked a math or science major if the grading were comparable, will choose the touchy-feely majors instead. So much the worse for them - and the rest of us.

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