Is it ever fair for 95 percent of a class to receive A’s?
In fall 2007 and spring 2009, the course International Politics—which typically seats ~200 students—was taught by professors Kimberly Marten and Robert Jervis respectively. For the 2009 version of the course, 14 percent of the class received A’s, a pittance relative to the 34 percent who earned A’s in Marten’s 2007 class. Is that fair?
In 2010, for a section in African Civilization—a Global Core class that’s capped at around 20 students—95 percent of the class got A’s. Is that fair?
For elementary/intermediate language classes (note: class sizes are small), of the limited data I have (gathered from kind souls voluntarily sending their transcripts), routinely over 70 percent of the class received A’s. A second-year Russian class was the lone exception in the data, with the professor giving “just” 64 percent of the class A’s.
Econ classes though, appear to consistently hover around or below the 40 percent mark. Econometrics with Arkonac in spring 2009 was at 38 percent, Economic Development with Findlay in spring 2009 gave 36 percent, and Xavier’s fall 2010 Intermediate Macroecon class gave 43 percent. Is it fair to compare the grade distribution of a 3xxx-level or 4xxx-level class in economics against an elementary language class’s distribution?
First, how do you define “fair” especially when comparing between different classes?
Is it how much the student learns? Is it how much a student learns relative to another student? Should the difficulty of getting an A vary between departments and classes? Is fairness even measurable?
Second, what’s the best way to enforce fairness?
Should all departments give a fixed percentage of A’s? Perhaps, but what if 60 percent of the class spends 5,000 hours studying—should only the top 40 percent get A’s? Probably not.
For a small class where it’s statistically plausible to have vastly different caliber of students, a curve doesn’t make sense either. For example, UWriting is capped at 14 students. Say Section A has 14 idiots and Section B has 14 Hemingway’s. Should 8 idiots in Section A get A’s while 6 Hemingways in Section B get B’s? Clearly not.
But of course curves exist for a reason. Assuming professors Marten and Jervis in the first example taught the same material equally well, and the students in both 200-person classes were of equal intelligence, to me it’s ridiculous that Jervis grades that much harder.
So what does this writer think?
I’ve intentionally left this topic open-ended but since this is an Opinion post, here’s my opinion in three really long sentences.
Fairness should be a function of how much someone learns in the class as well as how well someone performs relative to other students. The best way to implement this version of fairness is through a sort of dual grading scheme—if you demonstrate that you’ve learned X, Y, and Z through essays, tests, or whatever OR if you’re one of the top 20 percent in the class, you get a good grade. The amount of content learned to achieve an A/B/C should be consistent in all classes of the same level irrespective of department, and there should be a council of expert head honchos to look over the syllabi of all classes to ensure classes of the same level have equivalent amounts of workload.
Along with the chatter about rethinking the Gateway curriculum, changing FroSci, and tweaking the Global Core, I think this is a discussion Columbia has to (transparently!) have.
Mikey Zhong is a Spectrum opinion blogger and former Spectrum Editor. He, perhaps foolishly, has not abused this data for personal use.
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