Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Inflation is a difficult concept

Back in October 2008, a disillusioned professor under the pseudonym "Josh Smith" wrote an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, "I'm leaving," about his decision to exit academia. It's an interesting read, but I can't help noticing a tension between Smith's criticism of his students' intellectual laziness and his own, um, shaky analytical ability:
Grade inflation is rampant. Students think of a “B minus” as an F. I constantly get criticized for grading too harshly, even though I find my mean grade point average has risen over the past decade. A “C” to today's student is unfathomable. “Professor, I am on scholarship. How can you give me a C?” I remind them that I do not “give’” grades, but such semantics are lost on the student who yearns for an A at any cost. I tell them that I got Bs and Cs and I never complained, because I knew I deserved them. They do not believe me. (Maybe I should post my undergraduate and graduate transcripts on my office door?)
My great-uncle has the same complaint about young employees at the store he manages. Why do they think that $2 an hour is so unreasonable? After all, he was paid less than 50 cents an hour when he was young, and he didn't complain...

4 comments:

Samson said...

Hourly wages have no upper bound, but grades do. That makes a big difference.

tcspears said...

This seems like a poor analogy. Grade inflation is bad because it makes the college transcript a noisier signal of individual talent/productivity, which is important given the important role of education as a signal of worker productivity in the labor market (i.e. Spence 1973).

Even if the average student is getting smarter (I seriously doubt that), it's still important to have relative distinctions between student quality -- that's what's important for ensuring the existence of a separating equilibrium in the labor market.

Amber said...

As Samson says, grade inflation wouldn't be a problem--that is, if we had AA, AAA, etc. in addition to As and Bs. The issue is grade compression--the fact that there are only four possible grades (A, A-, B+, B) to give.

Grades have both absolute and relative value (I'd argue more of the latter). If the fact of the matter is that no students are doing C-quality work these days, so be it (although I have my doubts), but we also need a way to distinguish among today's students, which is increasingly difficult with grade compression.

Anonymous said...

I think your assessment of John Smith's analytic capabilities is too harsh. Grade inflation is a common bigram with a well understood meaning. It's fair to complain about it as nonsense but not particularly fair to fault the writer for using a phrase that readers understand quickly.