Letters to the Editor

Letter: Grade recommendations are flexible, reflect graduate feedback

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Herald published an article (“Econ dept. looks to curb grade inflation,” Feb. 7) and an editorial (“Fighting inflation, causing stagnation,” Feb. 12) regarding recent efforts by the Department of Economics faculty to combat grade inflation. Such efforts have been agreed upon by the members of our faculty over the past two years, but The Herald misreported many details in the article and especially the editorial.

First, the suggestion of only awarding 30 percent of students As applies to only one course, ECON 0110: “Principles of Economics,” which is our entry-level course. It applies to none of the other 50-plus undergraduate courses offered by our department. The suggestion pertaining to most of the other courses is up to 50 percent As. For intermediate-level courses, which are typically offered in multiple sections and hence benefit from having such general guidelines, the suggestion is up to 40 percent As.

Second, none of the suggestions are quotas and they don’t substitute for the judgment professors are expected to use in assigning grades. Thus, the editorial’s suggestion — that if weaker students drop a course some other students’ grades will go down to assure that no more than a fixed percentage earn As or Bs — is both offensive and absurd. Relatedly, students have the option to take classes S/NC and possibly the majority of students who would have earned Cs turn out to have pre-selected that option and accordingly earn an S grade. It would be absurd for us to push well-performing students’ grades down to make up a missing “quota” of Cs. No such quotas exist. Our ultimate guideline is that A is for excellent performance, B for good but not excellent performance and C for satisfactory but not good performance. If more students respond to the information that grades are taken seriously by our faculty and if, accordingly, we see less work that is merely satisfactory, we’ll be quite happy to give fewer Cs. In a class in which all truly perform excellently, all As can be given.

Our department isn’t attempting to engineer an overnight shift to a draconian grading system by imposing a rigid mandate on our faculty. We’re in fact responding to the complaints of quite a few of our own students — many of them reported in a survey we conducted two years ago. Those students told us they found too many of our courses becoming dumbed down gut courses in which students with the barest grasp of the material felt confident they could earn As. It was this that led us to take a look at our grade distributions and to notice that As had indeed become surprisingly common. Economics professors are mobile among universities, and we and other senior members of our faculty were concerned that more recently hired professors or visitors may have failed to grasp our department’s tradition of not offering gut courses and of not giving everyone an A for the sake of an easy life and a great teaching evaluation. It’s for this reason that we discussed and agreed amongst ourselves on the guidelines at issue here. Since The Herald’s article appeared, we’ve received many messages from students thanking us for beginning to address their concerns.

A recent column praised grade inflation and saw it as the obvious phenomenon for the world (“Eppler ’13: In defense of grade inflation,” Jan. 31), given that technology and education quality are improving over time. This is a peculiar view of the world. If it were true, in just a few years we all should congratulate each other on winning the Nobel Prize in all disciplines. We will all get it because we all deserve it.


Roberto Serrano

Chair, Department of Economics

Louis Putterman

Director of Undergraduate Studies, Department of Economics

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One Comment

  1. thatbeardedman says:

    It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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