grades are bs

July 28th, 2007

First, read TFA. I have personally made many of the same observations over the years, but Kavan presents it with great coherence and eloquence, so it's well worth the read.

All of us in school have had to endure grades, for better or for worse. Early in my academic career I used to receive very uniform grades, I was a B student, almost without exception. I guess if nothing else, my grades were consistent, so in some sense it seemed logical. It should be said that in both junior high and high school, the teachers had guidelines for grading they had to follow, and their grades were evaluated to some degree - in that statistics were compiled at the end of a year and those whose grading was way off no doubt would get a talking to. In the IB there's even a strict regime to plot grades worldwide, where if the grades of one teacher were considered out of range the whole class would get their grades adjusted accordingly. I was quite happy with that, because it was very organized, and it deprived teachers from having absolute power.

Once I entered the mystical halls of higher education, this state of affairs was upset. My grades suddenly fluctuated a lot more. Some grades I couldn't understand at all. With the unexpected low ones I was mad, with the high ones I was puzzled (but since it was in my interest it didn't exactly enrage me). But one thing was clear: the grades made a lot less sense now. You would think that teachers in colleges and universities would be smart enough to grade sensibly, but you'd be wrong. Half my grades would be right on the mark, the other half would be completely out of whack with my expectations. And not surprisingly, some teachers were much more on point than others. I still think this randomness is because teachers have absolute power since no one is checking up on them. And I detest it.

As Kavan writes, the Bell Curve, which was used as the basis for grading in most of my education, is completely bogus. I recall that in high school, the guidelines said that each of the five grades should be assigned to some x% of the class, so eg. C would get 40%, B = 25% etc. Which is idiotic, because if 50% score an A, then that is what they score.

Another practice which is entirely based on a teacher's inability to give a good test, is moving grades up or down. So if the mean is supposed to be a C and it happens to be a D, every D becomes a C, every B becomes an A etc. If the test was more relevant to what the students actually know, you would expect to get a finer granularity at the level you want to, rather than having almost no one answer the hard questions (which are supposed to distinguish students from each other) and everyone doing the easy ones (which offer no distinction).

The gravest mistake I've encountered is to make the test completely irrelevant to the teaching. There is no excuse for this kind of stupidity, and yet it happens. Sometimes exams have a sizable portion of problems concerning stuff that was nowhere in the syllabus at all. What on earth is the point of this? Is this a teacher's admission to "I would like to teach the stuff, but I don't know how, or I don't have the courage, so I'll just give it on the test alone"? Or maybe "this is what I wish my course to be about"?

What annoys me most is the disregard for quality grading. If you had parking attendants in the city who wrote tickets without much care as to whether your ticket is valid, or whether you were parked legally, you'd be pissed, and rightly so. Incompetence, at all levels, is grounds for complaint. Many years ago I had a teacher who graded 70+ exam papers in two days (the standard for getting grades out was 3 weeks) and the grades made absolutely no sense. So many people were pissed off that the department decided to stage an extra re-exam.

How can you possibly defend that grades in higher education are less accurate than those in middle school?

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2 Responses to "grades are bs"

  1. erik says:

    Reminds me when I handed in roughly the same essay for two different courses once. Both essays explained the same theory I came up with, although I adapted them in style of writing to suit the courses in question. Anyway the essence was the same and any differences that existed were superficial. One teacher graded it with a 9 (the scale being 1 to 10) and the other with a 5.

    You're completely at the mercy of a bunch of inconsistent morons.

  2. Brian says:

    What's the alternative to grades? People (e.g. employers) need some way of telling a really good hard-working student from a lazy incompetent student. Grades are definitely flawed and largely subjective, but I don't see any better option. They do give you a very rough idea of how a student did in class. However if I ever got a prof who said "50% of you will get C's" I'd probably drop the course.

    If nothing else, grades are a measure of giving a professor what he wants. In that sense they are a good measure of what you'll be required to do later in the workplace when your boss says "Give me a program that does this, by Friday".