Wednesday, January 29, 2014

D is the new F

The Myth of Raising Standards through Minimum Grades 

There is a trend at America’s colleges and universities to raise standards by instituting minimum grades.

Typically the minimum grade is a C-. It may be in the form of a prerequisite: You may not take BIOCHEM 202 unless you have completed BIOCHEM 201 with a grade of C- or better. Or it may be in the form of program requirements: You must achieve a grade of C- or better in all courses required by the major.

This is not raising standards. It is creating grade inflation and grade compression.

Imagine you are teaching physics to a senior biology major. Imagine the student is in the second semester of his senior year. (Biology students often delay taking a physics until the last possible moment!) Now imagine the student needs a C- to graduate. When you compute your grades you find that this student earned a D+. What do you do? Do you give a biology student a D+ in a physics course, preventing graduation?

Well, what you are likely to do is to give a C- because—you simply don’t want to prevent a student from graduating because of the minor difference between a D+ and a C-.

 I have seen grade distributions that confirm this. Distributions that demonstrate that professors show a great reluctance to give D’s if the student needs a C-. That’s grade inflation (giving higher grades than deserved) and grade compression (C- now incorporates earned C-’s and D’s—patently unfair to the true C- student.)

Employers know what a D means (or used to mean.) They can no longer be confident what a C- on a transcript means.

This is all based on apple pie “raise the standards” nonsense. In my view, if a student completes BIOCHEM 201 and is not ready for BIOCHEM 202, the student should fail 201. A D has historically meant a passing grade. It includes the message: you passed, barely, and if you don’t work harder we are not optimistic that you can do well in 202, but we are going to let you try. Because, well, you did pass. Likewise if you fail to master the content of a course required for a major then you should fail the course. If you get a D then you pass, and let the D stand on the transcript.

In the twisted universe of minimum grades, there is no difference between a D and an F. They are equivalent failing grades. The D is the new F.

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