Thursday, May 26, 2011

Nate from Norwalk Sends In The Big Thirsty. The Aligning of Grades.

I am in my 4th year teaching at a large state uni in the northeast. My department is gigantic, and we occasionally get treated as if we were runaway slaves or prison escapees. We get department-wide mandates that come sweeping out of the heaven of the department office, and how the mandates get settled or decided is never made clear.

As this semester ended, we were deluged with emails - and one video from our chair - about the need to better "align our grades" to those of the majority of our colleagues.

All sorts of plans are in progress for the coming fall; a portfolio from each faculty member must be submitted. Final grades should fit inside an approved "distribution bell," and our T&P portfolio will now have one additional requirement - a report on the aligning of our grades to the departmental norms.

Q: Is this unusual? Is anyone out there going through something similar? I'm a little alarmed about it all, but feel as if I don't really have a broad enough experience to know if my alarm is warranted. I do know it made me pull up my past grades to see what they looked like - although I don't know yet WHAT they're supposed to align like. Should a department's grades align with each other?

A: Post replies below.


  1. Not as unusual as it should be. I've never heard of it being a tenure/promotion metric, though: that's a whole new thing. I've heard of pressure on adjuncts in this vein, and I've heard of unofficial repercussions for outlier grading, but not full-bore T&P.

  2. Who knows if it is unusual, but it is authoritarian bullshit undermining both faculty autonomy and educational standards.

    My department's average grade is a B+. While I never go below a C average, I refuse to grade this easily just because it makes people feel better.

  3. At my institution, we have semiannual "grade norming" sessions wherein we all read a set of essays, grade them, and then discuss our grades so that everyone knows what the department expectations for an A, B, C, or F paper look like. We're also provided with a graphical breakdown of our grades and the department's grades as a whole, and the closer they are, the happier the administration is. I've never heard of anyone getting in any kind of trouble, though I assume that if someone's grades were skewed too far either way, there would be some questions.

  4. Don't worry about what your past grades looked like. All you need do is rank the class according to your grading scheme, then map those ranks to a score/grade in your institutions "approved distribution bell". And call it a "curve".

    I'm going to break rank here and say that, yes, a department's grades absolutely should align with each other (in a sense at least...). I'm shocked by the lack of inter-departmental communication and oversight on grading in the USA. Is it any wonder we see complaints and grade grubbing when students (often rightly) suspect their grade would be radically different if they'd taken the class with a different professor? Worse, the USA is imbalanced enough as it is regarding a young person's future options being largely determined by which college they get into (as opposed to what and how well they do when they get there). I have to say I sympathize a little with employers' attitudes on this score when the meaning of a grade isn't even consistent within a single institution!

    snarky writer - good to hear your institution is on the ball.

  5. I think such policies are completely ridiculous and intimidating. If, after getting 5 degrees, I am not considered capable of grading my own courses, then how is it that I'm still allowed to teach them without several administrators being present during every lecture to supervise me?


    If somebody tried to do this to me, I'd fight to the death, if only to preserve some shreds of dignity.

  6. I like the idea of norming sessions -- did that as a TA in larger classes -- but corralling faculty (especially tenured faculty) for an exercise like that is difficult.

    But it would be particularly helpful for new faculty, who often get into some hot water with students when their expectations don't align.

  7. That is completely ridiculous. In the right hands, perhaps it might be beneficial, but only if it's not used for tenure, the candy graders tossing As out like they're on a parade float are also dealt with, and the department's master bell is something that is a) not going to change and b)reasonable. If it's an average of what the department does now the easy As will skew it upwards.

    So many questions. Will this bell be used for graduate courses as well? Will it go for Spring courses (notorious for having fewer good/great students in intro courses)? Will exceptions be made so that we don't unfairly raise or lower a student's grade given the actual work they've done in the course, so we don't pass students who really need to be held back because there are others who we must fail?

    This is so ridiculous and, unfortunately, something I could easily see my department/university deciding was a good idea. Sigh.

  8. Ours is not quite so least not yet. At our annual reviews, we are given our retention and C-or-better rates and shown how they compare with the department average. As long as we are not wildly and consistently different from the departmental norm (meaning regularly 30%+/-), it's considered fine. We have had people removed from teaching certain types of classes (such as online or developmental) because their numbers were skewed so low every time that they were bringing down the department average significantly. Interestingly, we have a couple of A-candy givers, and as far as I know, nothing has happened to them yet although according to the policy, it should.

  9. My grade alignment is Lawful Evil.

  10. I once worked for a department that, at start of term orientation, we were loudly given the directive to "Fight Grade Inflation!" So, I created a class wherein I tried to craft a bell curve-like grade distribution into the very structure of the class.

    Then, at semester's end, we were gven the directive to "not give a C=" so as to avoid grade appeals. The following term, we were given the directive, also at te end of the term, "not to give any D+ grades either.

    How can we NOT give students the grades they actually earned without inflating grades of the mediocre???? The end of the term is NOT the time to tell faculty to erase 2 whole grades from the class!!!

    The first term, I accidentally awarded a C- to Repugnant Roger, who of course file a grade complaint. I also awarded a D to Absent Abby, who also filed a grade appeal. I was forced to raise those grades based on a committee's decision. Gee, which 3 faculty do you think were probably the biggest grade inflaters in the department?

    I would have preferred some mandate about applying a bell curve to that mess. Then at least one of the 3 A- students would have been awarded an A. Also, I at least understand the logic behind a bell curve, if it's used properly. One question remains though: What does one do when one encounters a dud class? Curve that B student up just because everyone else is less capable?

  11. Ben's a D&Der!

    Mine is Chaotic Good.

    My students think it's chaotic.

    I grade them harshly for their own good.

  12. Oh dear god, the grade norming.

    Many years ago I went through that with a full department. We were scared shitless by the Mean Dean, and many of us got our grades more in line. Of course you know what happened.

    Others DIDN'T. And when a committee correlated class GPAs with student evals, well, we all found out why.

  13. I've never understood using a normal distribution to determine grades. Using it makes an assumption that is most likely not valid and at the very least has not been verified. I never compare the grades of students, never compute any averages or deviations for a class, a never use any kind of curve. Yet I teach mathematics.

    I grade a student based upon the mastery of couse material that particular student has demonstrated. If some idiotic adminiflake said I had to use a statistical distribution for grades, I'd probably vomit all over their shoes. Why is it that the people who know the least about statistics want to use them the most?

  14. I've got one word for you, Norwalk Nate: rubrics.

    Total pain in the ass to prepare, but worth it in the long run. I hand it out at the beginning of the term and tell students that this is the standard to which their work will be judged. I haven't changed how I teach, I've just spelled out in charted detail how I assess.

    As dept chair, I've encouraged my staff to do the same. Results? Complaints have plummeted. And when idiot administrators who have never taught concoct bullshit about bell curves, we hand 'em our rubrics. Baffles 'em and shuts 'em up.

    Okay, it hasn't totally eliminated complaints. I had a student file a small claims court case against me last winter because I failed him and refused to talk to him about it. And he was right on both counts, especially my refusing to talk to him about it. Unreasonable on my part? Maybe. But after a few phone calls from him in which he identified himself, gave his phone number, then proceeded to tell me in explicit terms how he planned to sexually assault me, I felt kind of okay about letting his calls go to voice mail. For evidence. But I digress.

    Norwalk Nate, be clear and detailed about your standards, to both your students and to your administrators. As someone else suggested, check your college policies. And if you're union, for God's sake, make grades part of your academic freedom clause. Good luck!

  15. Well said, Hyperbolic! Agree!

    I teach an Advanced Placement high school class, and it drives me crazy the way the College Board manipulates the grading of the test. Students aren't graded according to their content mastery, they're ranked against each other, and a bell curve is created from that mess. Result? We have no idea whether students today are performing as well as students thirty years ago, because the numbers tell us nothing. And yet we all know, or sense anyway, that college freshman are increasingly ill-prepared and lacking in basic competencies.

    The AP statistics might have told us something interesting about college preparation if they hadn't been manipulated into meaninglessness before the students even showed up for the test.


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