October 18, 2007

Study Finds Median Grade Reports Lead to Inflation

Print More

In 1996, the Cornell University Faculty Senate voted to implement the “Truth in Grading” policy, which would involve publishing median grades online and on transcripts. More than 10 years later, the University will begin to include median grades on transcripts for the incoming class in 2008. These median grade reports have had unintended consequences. According to a study recently conducted by three Cornell professors, students are influenced to choose classes with relatively high median grades, which consequently leads to grade inflation.
The study titled “Quest for Knowledge and the Pursuit of Grades: Information, Course Selection and Grade Inflation,” was published on the Social Science Research Network last week.
The study was conducted by Prof. Talia R. Bar, economics, Prof. Vrinda Kadiyali, marketing and economics, and Prof. Asaf Zussman, economics. The study indicates that during the time of pre-registration and add/drop periods, the number of hits the median grades website receives increases significantly. This increase provides evidence that students use median grade reports when choosing classes.
The professors had three hypotheses that were tested from 1990 to 2004. The first predicted that once given grade information, the students would be more drawn to “leniently graded courses” (courses with a higher median grade). The second predicted that weaker students would be more drawn to leniently graded courses than stronger students, and the third predicted that the change in students’ manner of choosing classes would contribute to grade inflation.
The data was used from undergraduate level courses in the College of Arts and Sciences. An analysis of the information collected shows a 50 percent increase in the enrollment of courses with a median grade of an A from 1998 to 2004.
In order to determine who fell into the category of “low ability students” in the second hypothesis, the SAT scores of students were examined and compared to their choice of classes.
The study concluded that prior to median grade reporting when students did not have any knowledge of previous grades in a specific class, courses were selected based on students’ tastes. Once information about grades became available, the classes with higher median grades were selected more often.
The rationale behind the resolution, stated on the University Registrar’s website was that, “A grade of B- in a course of substantial enrollment in which the median was C+ will often indicate a stronger performance than, e.g., a B+ in a large course in which the median is A. More accurate recognition of performance may encourage students to take courses in which the median grade is relatively low.”
According to the University Registrar, the median grades and enrollment information provide a better context in which to assess grades.
Its website states that outside users of the transcript such as graduate schools and employers “will have more information on which to base their assessment of a student’s performance in his or her courses.”
Charles Walcott, the dean of faculty, expressed agreement with the benefits brought by access to median grades at Cornell.
“This is essentially making that information public so that somebody who looks at a transcript can evaluate the situation; it’s really kind of truth in advertising,” he said.
Although some express belief that access to median grades encourages students to challenge themselves academically while also providing better context for assessing transcripts, the study done by Cornell professors provides conflicting evidence. The study concludes that instead of steering students towards taking classes with relatively low median grades, the median grade reports have the opposite effect.
Mandy Duvall ’11 said that median grades did factor into her decision when choosing between certain classes.
“In addition to the workload, I looked at the median grade in the courses and compared them before deciding which course to take,” she said.
Although the resolution was passed in 1996, the median grade reports and enrollment information have not yet been included on transcripts because of issues with the student record system. The new system, the PeopleSoft Student Administration system, is set to begin working in spring of 2008.
Kate Duch ’09, a student-elected trustee expressed students’ disapproval of the inclusion of median grades on transcripts.
One such argument presented is that it isn’t fair to upperclassmen to have median grade reports on their transcript for courses they took as freshmen and sophomores when at the time, they were not aware median grades would ever be included.
“The resolution approved by the Faculty Senate in 1996 specifically explains that the new grade reporting policy will only affect incoming students. The committee in charge of implementing the policy was not aware of that clause in the original resolution and had planned to implement it retroactively for all current students,” she said.
She continued, “The committee has since revised its implementation so that median grade reports will not be incorporated on transcripts retroactively. Median grade reports and enrollment will only appear on transcripts for incoming students so that transcripts will be uniform for all four years.”
Many students are less invested in the issue knowing that it will not apply to any current students.
According to the study, grade inflation, a problem that has been steadily on the rise at Cornell, can be attributed to the median grade reports. However, the study also attributed one third of the increase in inflation to an increase in the quality of the students.
Duch expressed agreement with the study’s findings, saying that the inflation is not necessarily a result of more courses with higher median grades, but rather, “more students are enrolling in courses with higher median grades.”
In 2004, Princeton University introduced a quota on the number of As in response to rising grade inflation. Dean Walcott says the Cornell will not follow in Princeton’s footsteps.
“Cornell is very fierce in that the grades that a faculty member gives are that faculty member’s responsibility and nobody can interfere with that. I don’t think anybody at Cornell is going to tell faculty how to grade any time soon,” said Walcott.
Median grades are calculated for a course on the whole, not taking into account the teacher of the course. While it is possible to have an inadequate teacher, causing grades to be lower in a certain section, those students will still be held against the median grade for the course on their transcript.
Dean Walcott said that while it is unfortunate, nothing much can be done about it.
“It is inherently unfair that some teachers are better than others, but it’s a part of life,” said Walcott.