Thursday, December 11, 2008

Brighouse on grade inflation

At Crooked Timber, the well-known philosopher of education Harry Brighouse has a wide-ranging post on grade inflation and the functions of grading -- well worth checking out. Brighouse reaches several intriguing conclusions about grading and grade inflation:

  1. Grades have increased over time -- but so too has the quality of student performance. Brighouse notes that the ethnic and gender integration of higher education, along with a decline in legacy admissions, has increased the quality of the pool of students from which colleges and universities draw. An interesting point: I don't know of too many students these days who are content with the "Gentleman's C". In fact, at my institution, lots of those Gentleman's C gets you put on academic probation!
  2. Grading's function is at best imperfectly calibrated to recognize merit. A tidbit:
    it is not really true that high achievers are, by virtue of that, meritorious. To the extent that achievement is the product of natural talent, or fortuitious environment, which in most cases is considerable, it is not meritorious, but a matter of brute luck on the part of the achiever. I agree with political theorist Michael Sandel that one of the deep flaws of our social environment is that it sends lots of signals to high achievers that they are somehow meritorious in virtue of their achievement and need not feel humble or an obligation to turn their talents to the service of others less fortunate. Universities already participate in that culture, there is no need for the grading system to further mislead. Anyway, high achievement in a particular class is not always the result of effort in that class. The best predictor of achievement in a class is prior achievement in the subject that class teaches; some students routinely achieve at a lower level than other students because they are more intellectually ambitious, and thus (in my opinion) more academically meritorious.
  3. The legitimate functions of grading are to inform students and their future employers or their future institutions of their academic quality and to motivate improved student performance.

There's perhaps much to contest in Brighouse's views, but I admire its willingness to take on some of the bromides one often hears in discussions of academic grading.

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