Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Weighted Grades; Point Shaving and Moving the Goalposts

I'm going to have to deconstruct the weighed grading issue over a number of posts so bear with me.

At issue is a proposal to add further weight to Advanced Placement (AP) courses at EO Smith. Currently weighed grading applies to all of our grades with 'A' level courses getting the greatest weight and diminishing returns for lower level courses. To some degree I'm still trying to wrap my head around the existing weighed grade policy and in doing so I embarked on a crash course in the subject over the past week or so.

Here's what I learned. I'm going to gloss over a lot of peripheral arguments that result in circular logic exercises. So the fact that different teachers and different subjects are, well, different - harder, easier, more rigorous, less rigorous is an immutable and inevitable consequence of the teaching endeavor. Or is an AP course here better or worse than an AP course elsewhere? Therefore... um, the quality of grades are relative to their dispositions. That won't change. Ever. And it doesn't change the issues at hand.

There are other back story and philosophical navel gazing issues I won't discuss either by the same logic.

To dive into the issue of weighted grades is to unlock a Pandora's box of myths and eternally unresolved educational puzzles. At the heart of the matter are two institutional hot button issues; grade-inflation and what grading actually means.

To high school students who tightly couple their ambitions to exclusive schools these questions are but nuisance and noise. Like the television commercials in which people waiting for tax refunds scream, "I want my money and I want it now!", students today demand grades that richly endow their GPAs with seemingly impeccable credentials.

Yet, in Excellence Without a Soul, Harry R. Lewis, former Harvard Dean, explains Harvard's admissions peculiarities;
Because so many applicants present high grades and test scores, Harvard makes admissions decisions with the aid of non-numeric information. What might catch the imagination of an admissions committee when considering one student but not another can be hard to divine. As often as not, admissions officers look for a capacity to make the absolute most of the available opportunities. A student who has achieved the maximum with limited opportunities is more promising than a student who has achieved more in absolute terms but less relative to what was possible. Some see in this philosophy a flawed sort of "comparable worth" theory of admissions. Is fine poetry by a student of parents who do not read books more worthy than an excellent science project by a child of two biology professors?

It is understandably difficult for parents and applicants to recognize that admission is not a game with prizes granted to students with the longest resumes. Achievements of the past may provide evidence of promise for the future, but the objective of the admissions process is to invest in the future, not to reward the past. The laborious recruitment and selection process, with all its contradictions and disappointments and balancing of imponderables, is an attempt to create a community of individuals who, after living and studying together for four years, will go on to change the world for the better in all kinds of different ways.

Peterson's guide, after a lengthy explanation of the 4.0 and weighted grade practices adds this aside,
It gets better. When considering your GPA, college admission officers might un-weight and then re-weight it according to their own scale. Why? In order to arrive at a better comparative method!

So clearly, college admissions officers are faced with a tsunami of GPAs coming in, all that reflect either the integrity of the institutions issuing the grade or the degree to which an institution games the system using weighted grades to jockey higher GPAs than the next school's graduates.

So while Peterson's describes the college admissions process as unpredictable, it is more precisely the cacophony of thousands of university's trying to fairly compare asymmetric GPA scores. This results in two pragmatic qualifiers.

First, college entrance exam test scores that represent uniform peer to peer comparison's can come to the fore.

Second, the institutional integrity of the sending school (as well as other eclectic factors) also are applied to the GPA numbers an admissions office sees. If former undergrads performed well, then the quality of the GPA being evaluated may hold a greater value (aside from straight numerics) than the GPA of a school whose undergraduates consistently are accepted due to inflated GPAs and under-perform once accepted.

But to address former Dean Lewis's assertion that there is an altruistic (for lack of a better term) component to admission to the most selective schools is to some degree a antithesis for students and schools who believe that by out-weighting the competition in terms of GPA sums they are earning their admission or should be rewarded for their herculean efforts or that there is an unfairness to a system in which they win the race but lose the prize of their 'dream' school admission fantasy.

The fact that stacking the weighted GPA deck is discounted as though it didn't exist is blasphemy to students and parents who insist that their child in some extreme circumstance will lose consideration from the ranks of one institution or another because of a tenth of a point that the high school could ensure with added weight to this or that course. In the shadow of high drama, it is not just irony at play in this process.

A scholarship judge in the National Association for College Admission Counseling writes in Don’t dwell on your GPA – it’s not a point of distinction.
Nothing angers the high-ranking students (and their teachers) more than this one, but Uncle Josh has some bad news for you, and you’re not going to like it. However, you do need to accept it because it’s true, and I know it’s true because I write the scholarship checks and your teachers don’t. Are you ready? Are you sitting down? OK, here goes:

Your GPA doesn’t really matter that much. If at all.

So the argument comes back to academic integrity of the sending institution. But history shows that institutions are largely incapable of stopping grade inflation or reforming the inertia in play today.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, in an Article entitled, Just Say 'A': Grade Inflation Undergoes Reality Check, Thomas Bartlett and Paula Wasley report:

Those who believe that grade inflation exists say that when colleges do try to hold grades in check or make professors accountable, they usually fail.

Among the contributors to the new volume [Grade Inflation: Academic Standards in Higher Education (State University of New York Press)] is Mary Biggs, an English professor at the College of New Jersey, who sees little hope for those trying to stem the tide.

"Once grade inflation has taken hold," she says, "it develops its own constituencies and acquires a heavy weight and powerful momentum of its own."

Huanxing Yang and Chun Seng Yip, in a study of grade inflation assert,
Hence to be precise, our usage of grade inflation implicitly assumes some form of dilution, i.e., grade inflation, for our purposes, is the phenomenon of passing off a bad student as a good one, by awarding him the same grade as the good student.
We call this a Gresham’s law for grade inflation: that bad grades drive out good.
This is because grade inflation takes on a contagious character: inflating schools mutually reinforce each other’s practices. Furthermore, with some minor technical assumptions, we show that the equilibrium is unique. Our equilibrium also has the result that schools with higher reputations will grade-inflate more. The contagion effect may suggest how the momentum for grade inflation in the later 1960s and 1970s came about. We also show that grade inflation can be related to measures of inequality between good jobs and bad jobs. The greater the inequality between good and bad jobs, the greater the extent of grade inflation. In other words rising grade inflation seems to be related to the rising skills premium documented in the last
three decades.

One of our most striking implications arises from our welfare analysis. We demonstrate that the social planner’s optimum implies that there ought not be any grade inflation. Thus agents in a world with grade inflation are worse off than in a world without grade inflation.

Furthermore, the presence of disciplined schools, who for some exogenous reason do not practice grade inflation, will curb the extent of grade inflation amongst the other (undisciplined) schools.

What does a disciplined high school grading policy look like? Here's Mamaroneck high school's (New York) faq sheet on grading::

Q: Why doesn't Mamaroneck weight grades as some other high schools do?

A: MHS has never weighted AP or Honors level courses. The counseling department feels that our policy does not place our students at any disadvantage in reference to college admissions. The grading policies and transcript of MHS are well established and understood by selective colleges and universities. On several documents sent with each application it is stated that we do not weight grades. Thus, it is clear to colleges how to evaluate our students. Colleges look closely at transcripts and understand the level of difficulty and challenge of student programs. Furthermore, colleges often disregard averages provided by high schools and re-compute the GPA's using their own policies.

In the past I have seen several studies, reports Nick Kourabas, which indicate that rank in class is not changed significantly by weighting of grades. Many high schools have moved away from weighting of grades because averages become ridiculously high. This is especially true in times of grade inflation. Because we do not provide exact rank, this should not be a huge issue.

Also,you could make a case that weighting of grades places average students, underachieving students, and students with learning difficulties at a disadvantage. Not only are they judged negatively because they are not taking honors and advanced placement courses, but with the weighting of grades their averages would be deflated in value. The pressure to be in honors and AP courses would be greatly increased by weighting of grades. We feel students should be encouraged to take harder, more challenging courses. However, increased pressure to do so because of weighting is not necessary and probably unhealthy.

Wow. Refreshing. EO Smith needs to hold the line on this issue. I'll explore this a little more in coming posts.

1 comment:

Bob Kremer said...

Well organized and thought provoking. It has always been the intangible acts of students that seem to set them apart. Maintaining high standards without grade inflation is critical to the future success of our students and I would agree that students choosing to take on the challenges of AP courses should not simply be an act of increasing one's GPA.

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