Grade Inflation 12/28/22

Thoughts with Richard Bleil

The course, required in every math and science program, was meant to be interdisciplinary with shared faculty duty between the four disciplines (biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics). By the time I got there, the physics professor and all math professors had already decided to bow out, some of whom admitted to me that they could not work with the biology faculty. The reason soon became clear.

Although it was presumably interdisciplinary, the biology faculty insisted that the students use, as an example, the format for their final paper that is used in biology journals. So my students, for example, couldn’t use the format that they would use in chemistry journals. I didn’t mind this so much, because when you’re publishing articles in science journals, you always look at the publication guidelines and follow the format required by the journal you want to publish your work, but demanding the format of their own discipline was a bad omen for the concept of “cooperative teaching”.

The last year that I was willing to work to teach the course, the decision had been made (by the biology faculty) that the research projects should all involve water. The process was that the students were to decide on a project, write a proposal including testing methods, and once approved do the research and write a paper and presentation. Of the five groups of students, four were doing chemical testing (meaning it was up to me to advise and help them) but I want to focus on two groups of students.

One group of students were three females (which may or may not have been a factor), two of whom were chemistry majors. They wanted to test bottled water for minerals using the Atomic Absorption Spectrometer, one of the most complicated instruments in the building. They submitted their proposal, and the week it was approved they were in my office wanting to get started. We scheduled a time, and they rapidly began their testing, completing their laboratory work within two weeks and writing their final report and presentation. I was very proud of them. Their efforts were astounding, and they did a superb job.

The other group, two male biology students, decided they wanted to test for pesticides, a mid-level instrument in terms of complexity. As soon as their project was approved, they disappeared. I had reached out a couple of times, but about two weeks before their project was due, they showed up asking me to help them with their lab work. They were unhappy working in the lab and ended up sending their water samples out to a professional lab. Yes, they paid an external lab to do their lab work and write their report for them rather than trying to do it themselves.

After the presentation, sitting in a room with the other two professors, both biology faculty, they said early, “well, it’s obvious that the students doing the pesticide project deserve A’s, and the minerals in water group should get C’s. Agreed?”

What. The. Hell.

Needless to say, I did not agree. I brought up the fact that the students with the minerals project were on the ball, worked hard to complete their project early, and did their own work as opposed to the pesticide group that waited until the last minute and ultimately didn’t do any work on their own save reformatting the final paper. The other faculty fought vehemently.

They argued that the minerals group deserved a C because their project didn’t have anything to do with lakes. Well, honestly, if we meant that the groups do a project on the lakes, that should have been stated at the outset, and certainly should not have been approved by the very faculty now saying that their work was subpar. They further argued that the pesticide group should get A’s, because one of the group members, and I quote, “probably never got a grade lower than an A anyway.”

Okay, seriously, grades should be based on current performance, not current GPA. And the faculty should take some responsibility for letting a group do a project of which they did not approve. They could have just as easily done minerals in lake water if that was the intention. The final “compromise” that they pushed was “fine, everybody gets A’s”. I didn’t fight the compromise, although I was disappointed, as long as the deserving students got the grade they earned. It’s unfortunate that the meaning of their grade was eroded by the grade of the other group.

Needless to say, I couldn’t work with the faculty involved anymore. But to this day I’m upset with the blatant grade inflation and bias based on, well, who was in the group. Elitism should have no influence on grades. On that day, I had lost any respect I had for those faculty members, and frankly didn’t give a damn if they lost respect for me.

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