Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Make good grades costly to teachers

As a teacher, who has not faced this dilemma: you want your students to make an effort and learn, but you also want them rewarded with good grades so that they do well on the job market or with college applications. If your grading practices cannot be observed by outsiders, there is no reason for you to give bad grades, and students will not study hard.

Robertas Zubrickas rationalizes all this with a principal-agent model where the teacher cares more about the learning and the students more about the signaling. Teachers offer a contract to students, oberserving perfectly their performance and rewarding it with good grades. The problem is that issuing good grades is costless. Of course, what really matters are relative grades, but if the market cannot observe the grading rule or the grade distribution, all that matters are the "nominal" grades. The result: everyone gets the best grade, and there is complete pooling. And it is empirically observed that schools with laxer grading standards achieve lower SAT scores.

And how can one prevent this poor outcome. Either make the distribution of grades available, thus making grades "real" instead of "nominal." Or make it costly for teachers to give good grades (instead of making it costly to give bad grades by asking for extra administrative steps for those). For example by imposing a distribution or an average grade. I would certainly welcome this, as some of my colleague are clearly free-riding and giving good grades to everyone.


Kansan said...

At my institution, the teacher has to write a letter to give a failing grade. We do exactly the opposite of what his paper recommends!

Anonymous said...

This might work for a few top places, i.e. everyone knowing that a C at Harvard U. is worth something, but it's not really a good idea for smaller/less known places. How do I compare a 3.0 GPA from XXY U. with a 3.2 GPA from YYX U.?

I can't help but think that standardized testing is the (imperfect) way to go here.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

It may no longer be the true, but for a long time, Cornell had a reputation for resisting grade inflation more than other schools.

BTW, E.L., I had long figured your anonymity was due to working for a government agency or Fed where you were not allowed to blog. But that would not appear to be the case.

Anonymous said...

By your reasoning:

1. Grading is about status signaling, and should not be mistaken for a measure of proficiency.
2. What employers want is the top-status students, not the qualified ones.
3. The point of school is to allocate a pecking order, and separate the nobles from the plebs.
4. Life is a high-school popularity contest.

Why does grading have to be a zero-sum game? Why shouldn't grades go up in time, as knowledge and therefore potential proficiency increase in most fields?

I encourage you to check out this post on zero-sum bias:


Economic Logician said...

I do not see how you conclude grading is about signaling status. I *should* signal competence, but if teachers are too nice, it signals *nothing* (this is what a pooling equilibrium is).

Grading should establish a ranking of competences, and rankings are inherently zero-sum. Grading itself is certainly not about social status, as it happens within a group. Which school you are at may be, though.