Mechanisms to deal with grade inflation

New York Times covers measures recommended by a UNC committee, led by sociologist Andrew Perrin, to deal with grade inflation (link). The suggestions include issuing a statement on the appropriate proportion of students in each class that should receive A’s and also having students’ transcripts include information on a class’s grade distribution (e.g., the class median grade or the percentage of A’s) next to a student’s grade for that class.

This is an interesting design problem. For graduate school admissions, as grades become less informative as signals of quality, it would seem that the result would be for standardized tests to receive extra weight. This puts a lot of stress on standardized tests, and it’s not clear that, e.g., GREs are up to the job, given that they are meant to screen for such a broad range of application types. Witness the amount of heaping that takes place at the upper end of the score range for the quantitative section of the GRE. Ultimately this introduces a lot of arbitrariness into the graduate admissions process.

The solution of adding extra information to transcripts is reasonable given the constraints. But it passes the buck to admissions committees (and other committees, such as scholarship decision committees) who have to expend the effort to make sense of it all. A question, though, is whether these kinds of transcripts cause students to change their behavior in a way that helps to restore some of the information content in grades. Lot’s of other interesting things to consider as part of the design problem, including how an optimal grading scheme should combine information on a student’s absolute versus relative (to other students in the class) performance.

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