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The insidious grading cycle

When I first wrote about grading policy last semester, I thought I was delving into a basic grading inequity between majors at Duke.

Turns out grading policy—by which I mean the flexibility Duke and other undergraduate institutions give various departments and professors to set their own grading standards—is weakening academic culture at Duke and penalizing talented professors and students.

Start with the professor evaluations completed by students at the end of each semester. Teacher evaluations are used as a resource in determining whether or not to award tenure—that is to say, they are pretty important. They are also correlated to the grading distributions used in a given course. A study released last year by former Duke professor Stuart Rojstaczer showed that professors who award higher grades on average tend to receive higher course evaluations from students.

“In my experience as a department chair, looking over the teaching evaluations of my colleagues, there’s a correlation between evaluations and grades,” said Alex Rosenberg, the chair of Duke’s philosophy department.

Awarding higher grades also keeps students happy and away from office hours, which increases professors’ down time and leaves them free to do more valuable things, like research. “There are people who think that their livelihood, their continued employment at Duke, and even their level of non-annoyance by students is assured by the current system,” Rosenberg told me in a phone call.

As departments have begun to recognize the grade inflation that results from these perverse incentives, some have taken unilateral action against it. Ken Rogerson, the director of undergraduate studies for public policy, showed me a memo he sends to undergraduate professors in his department every year. The document includes the recommended mean grades for sub-100 level, 100-level and 200-level courses. The memo tells professors they are free to “bust the grading curve” when they feel it is necessary, but it also warns that consistent lack of adherence to department grading policy is taken into account in faculty career reviews.

“One of the reasons we do this is because of the problems of grade inflation,” Rogerson told me. “We want to push students to be really good critical thinkers.”

But other departments take a different approach. “There is no grading policy in the philosophy department,” Rosenberg told me. “Every member of the department is completely autonomous in the grades they give.”

Of course, the fact that different majors have different grading policies wouldn’t really matter if students were never compared to their peers in different disciplines. But they are. In fact, our University makes this comparison every year when it computes Dean’s List and Latin Honors cut-offs. Even though philosophy and public policy majors are subject to completely different grading standards, their GPAs are mashed up and compared against each other in the University’s recognition of academic excellence.

And employers, graduate schools and other folks who look at GPAs aren’t given the crucial information that a 3.7 in public policy might means something completely different than a 3.7 in philosophy.

When I was told during job interviews this year that some firms use a GPA cut-off of 3.5 for interviews, I realized how big the difference between a 3.4 in math and a 3.6 in English can be.

“The ironic thing is that as GPAs have gone up and become less meaningful … students and professional schools have decided to try to make distinctions between GPAs at a finer and finer level,” Rojstaczer said in an e-mail.

Unsurprisingly, this trend skews student enrollment toward majors and courses that are graded more leniently. “Grading practices do influence student choice,” Rojstaczer, who has completed decades of research on the subject, told me. Amazingly, a study by former Duke statistics professor Valen Johnson concludes that “American undergraduates take 50 percent fewer courses in the natural sciences and math than they would if grading practices were more equitable.”

The domino effect here should scare anyone who cares about the future of Duke and its peer academic institutions. Professors are rewarded for giving higher grades and departments—through increased enrollment—are incentivized not to do anything about it. In the meantime, students are steered towards classes that give higher grades, rather than the ones that interest them.

This is not an issue of grade inflation, which is a problem (mostly) unto itself. Instead, it’s an issue of grading disparities. If every Duke professor used the same grading distribution with an average grade of A-, for instance, that would clearly result in grade inflation. But it wouldn’t skew student enrollment or result in the same confusion for employers.

That this problem has festered for so long at institutions of Duke’s caliber is astonishing. While other schools are introducing innovative grading policies, Duke’s administration has, as ever, remained stagnant. This issue cannot wait any longer: It is too crucial to the future of our institution.

We need to reverse the cycle.

Jeremy Ruch is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Wednesday.

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