When I started as an assistant professor, our Provost insisted that to be tenured, all tenure-track faculty had to have scores on their anonymous student evaluations that were above their department’s averages. I tried to explain to him that if this were sustained over time, the result would be that all tenure-track faculty would be required to have perfect scores. After that happened, no one would get tenure, since it would no longer be possible to score higher than average. He gave me a deer-in-the-headlights look.
Anonymous student evaluations are of course notorious for statistical nonsense. They should be controlled for the type of course (large, general-ed courses often get lower ratings than upper-level courses for majors), subject, major, and attendance. Small-number statistics also matter: if only four students do the evaluation, if the one premed is mad at you for having earned any grade other than an A, it will affect the average significantly. My first Provost understood this. The second one, who arrived three years later, did not: it’s a miracle I got tenure.
Now, my administration is clucking about “student success.” They expect us to improve graduation rates by 2% per year and by 10% over the next ten years, never mind that these goals are not mathematically equivalent. The effect this has on standards is anyone’s guess, of course.
Recently, a talented undergraduate told me that her high-school GPA was 4.3. Her high school counted AP courses on a five-point scale, and simply added this to the conventional four-point grade-point average. This, statistically, is nonsense. What strikes me is that exactly this was done when I was in high school, in the mid-‘70s. After 40 years, am I the only one to point out this is mathematical nonsense?
I tried to tell my student this. She got upset, insisting that she worked hard in her AP courses, so she deserved the extra points to her GPA. I told her that this doesn’t help when applying for jobs: when I was an undergraduate, telling a prospective employer that I’d had a 4.20 GPA in high school would get a glazed look, and I would not be hired. These non-academic employers understood this was mathematical nonsense.
I told my student that she should therefore go over her high-school transcript carefully and calculate what her GPA would be, if she had gotten nothing but grades of A, and then express her GPA as a ratio of this number. This would make my high-school GPA a 4.20/4.46, which is equivalent to a 3.77/4.0, which employers could understand. Wouldn’t you know that when I did find a job as an undergraduate, it was compiling statistics for some academics on campus, who never did ask my high-school GPA.
It’s bad enough for a 19-year-old undergraduate to do this. It’s less excusable for education professionals. (Mencken called them “pedagogues.”) What is it about education professionals and mathematical nonsense? It’s a wonderful illustration of the saying that, “It’s difficult to get people to understand something when their livelihood relies on their not understanding it.”