Should universities police grades?

Compromising a professor's freedom to assign marks should not be taken lightly.

This past week, a professor contacted us here at OnCampus, indicating that he was being treated unfairly by his administration which had forced him to lower grades in his courses, claiming (wrongly, he said) that the grades were inflated. Others with more journalistic chops than me are looking into the specifics of his case, but the message raised an issue that is too often ignored  in our discussions of Canadian higher education.

When, if ever, should a university interfere with a professor’s grades?

Someone more high-minded and idealistic than me (if that’s possible), might argue the answer to that question should be never. A professor has the right to academic freedom, and that freedom extends to teaching, and teaching includes grading. If the professor is a qualified expert in his field, we should leave him to his judgements. It’s not for an administrator to come along after the fact and second-guess whether the grades are fair or not. Nor should that administrator pre-second-guess by insisting that the professor’s grades fall within a certain arbitrary range.

Academic freedom is an important principle — maybe the most important in the university — but it is not the only principle, and policing grades (like policing people) often means balancing one important principle against another. For instance, surely we can agree on the principle that students should be treated fairly, right? But what if students in Professor Curmudgeon’s Intro to Psych class are getting mostly Cs and Ds while students of similar ability and motivation are getting As and Bs over in Professor Candycorn’s section? In other words, if two students are doing work of about the same quality, shouldn’t they be getting about the same grade?

Of course they should, but everyone who has taught at a real university knows that this is not the case. An essay that would earn you an A in Dr Paddington’s class may only tip the scales as a B in Dr Saltmarsh’s section. I once had a colleague who gave a paper a grade in the 40s and when the student complained, gave the paper to two other colleagues in the same department to see what they would have given. One said the original grade was too generous and that something in the 30s was deserved; the other said the original evaluation had been much too harsh and the paper was worth a 70. In my department, the average grades between one section of Intro to Lit and another often vary by 15 points or more.

With all this in mind, wouldn’t it make sense for the university to issue guidelines (especially for multiple sections of the same course) that say the average final grades ought to be within x and y?

Sure, but like student assignments or political revolutions, the basic idea is great, but the execution is troubling.

For one thing, how does one agree on the correct range for the grades? If Professor Gatekeeper has a class average in the 50s, and Professor Flowers has a class average in the 70s, the former will likely think that the latter is too lenient and should be brought to heel, while the latter probably thinks the former is an old sourpuss and should be made to lighten up.  Gatekeeper thinks his grades are low because he has courageously high standards, while Flowers thinks her students do better because she is such a good teacher. Even averaging everyone’s grades to get a fair range might not  help because Gatekeeper thinks all his colleagues have gone soft, while Flowers thinks that she’s the only one who gets it. And what about the fact that some courses are harder than others? Do we need to have one range for Geology and another for Organic Chemistry? One for Intro to Cinema and another for Shakespeare? And how do we decide those ranges?

And even if we could agree on a range, another problem crops up. What if you genuinely have an unusually good class? In large intro courses with many sections, this becomes statistically less likely, though, even then, there might be factors that lead some sections to have better students than others (maybe the students in one particularly demanding program can only take the course in one particular time slot, so that slot gets a lot of top students). I once had an upper-year drama course where the average was nearly 80 and though I feared I was losing my edge, I was pretty sure then and am absolutely sure now that that was just an unusually smart and motivated group of students.

All that said, there must surely be cases where administrators must step in. I recall a case where an instructor routinely gave virtually all the students in all his courses 90 or higher. Needless to say, students flocked to his classes, and needless to say, not all of them were earning those A+ grades. Some of them probably didn’t even deserve credit in the courses, and some of them might have been given an unfair advantage when competing for scholarships and prizes. Others might have used the easy 90 to raise their overall average and thus be eligible to graduate when they otherwise would not have been. At a certain point, doling out top marks indiscriminately is not exercising one’s academic freedom; it is shirking one’s academic responsibilities.

One way to improve things would be to include rankings on students’ transcripts in addition to the grade. That is, your transcript could say that you got an 80 in Professor Middleton’s class, and also indicate that that was, say, the fifth highest grade out of thirty students. Including such information is frowned upon by registrars in Canada and is rarely done, but the obvious benefit is that it would instantly provide a clearer picture of what the grade really means. For instance, let’s say Lindsay and Megan both get 85 in different sections Intro to Poli Sci. But look closer and you see that Lindsay was ranked first in her class of thirty, while Megan was ranked tenth in her class of the same size. In all likelihood, Lindsay did much better because her professor was a tougher grader than Megan’s. Lindsay’s 85 is worth more than Megan’s in the same way that one country’s dollar might be worth more than another’s.

Rankings wouldn’t solve all the problems —  the top ten students, for example, in one class might all be very close in terms of their grades, making the tenth place student look worse than she deserves — but the rankings would help. Bragging rights would go to those who did the best in their classes, not who earned an arbitrary number or letter. I doubt it will catch on, though. When I proposed adding rankings to transcripts at my university, the proposal was shot down, partly on the grounds that knowing where they were ranked might hurt students’ feelings.

Universities have an obligation to police grades when the grading is so out of kilter that it threatens the integrity of the school’s offerings. In general, administrators should be more concerned with grades that are too high than grades that are too low because numerous pressures conspire to inflate grades, and low grades can always be appealed. Still, any system to regulate grades must be done with enough flexibility  to allow for special cases in particular and academic freedom in general. After all, I can’t ask a journalist to look into every case, now can I?