Tag Archives: Grade Inflation

Tenure and Honest Grading – a Connection?

Scales of Justice

Finally.  A judge ruled last week in Colorado that not only is tenure a good thing for the professors who enjoy it, it is valuable to the public! Further, the court ruled that the value (to the public) of tenure outweighed the value of giving colleges flexibility in hiring and dismissing. That is a principle that faculty members say is very important and makes this case about much more than the specific issues at play.

The ruling came in a long legal battle over rules changes imposed by the board of Metropolitan State College of Denver on its faculty members in 2003. While noting “countervailing public interests” in the case, Judge Norman D. Haglund wrote that “the public interest is advanced more by tenure systems that favor academic freedom over tenure systems that favor flexibility in hiring or firing.” The ruling added that “by its very nature, tenure promotes a system in which academic freedom is protected” and that “a tenure system that allows flexibility in firing is oxymoronic.”

AAUP banner

In a related development, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)  voted on June 13 to censure Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana, because it had terminated Maureen Watson after 12 years of work as a non-tenure track faculty member, with one day of notice — even though she had earned consistently good reviews. The AAUP faulted Nicholls State for not providing due process appropriate for someone with that much of a work history at the university, and for not even acknowledging Watson’s right to know why her teaching career was being ended. The association also noted plausible evidence — not refuted by the university — that Watson lost her job because her rigorous grading was resulting in too many students receiving low or failing grades in her mathematics courses.

The AAUP report stated:

The Nicholls administration’s efforts to reduce failing grades seem to have been detrimental to the climate for academic freedom by causing faculty members in affected departments to believe that they did not have the right to assign grades based on their own knowledge and judgment. Ms. Watson exercised her own academic freedom by grading as she saw fit, despite the administration’s pressure for a reduction in failing grades. Her dismissal, if the investigating committee’s conclusion on the matter stands unrebutted by the administration, was therefore in violation of her academic freedom. The investigating committee commends her determination to grade according to her best professional assessment of the merits of student performance…

No plausible reason for the administration’s dismissal of Ms. Watson can be ascertained other than its displeasure with her having assigned a large percentage of failing grades to her students in college algebra. Dismissing her for that reason, assuming the reason remains unrebutted, violated her academic freedom. Her insistence on grading in accordance with her best professional judgment of a student’s academic performance warranted not dismissal but commendation.

Ernst Benjamin, former interim general secretary of the AAUP, said that the case was important both because of Watson’s adjunct status and because of what the issues say about academic freedom. While people associate academic freedom with controversial research or teaching topics, Benjamin noted that for “most faculty, the ability to maintain professional standards” through honest grades is of great importance to their academic freedom.

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Contingent Faculty and Grade Inflation

mortarboard_Here’s an interesting article on this subject by Phil Ray Jack, originally posted on January 4, 2008. An excerpt follows:

……At most colleges, the work we [contingent faculty] do is judged primarily, if not exclusively, on our student evaluations. As public perceptions concerning higher education have changed, so have student reactions to what we do. Several years ago, we were seen as the experts who had valuable knowledge to impart to our students; now we are seen as clerks who dispense grades, certificates and diplomas to customers who are constantly encouraged to express their displeasure……[emphasis added]

The result of the corporatization of the academy has been that contingent faculty are increasingly evaluated on the basis of customer (student) satisfaction.  Given the fact that administrators and supervisors rely heavily on ratings by students of contingent faculty in personnel decisions, here’s an article that concludes that such data are not methodologically sound, and that such data ought not be treated as admissible evidence in any legal or quasi-legal hearing related to decisions on the reappointment, pay, merit pay, tenure, or promotion of an individual instructor.  This article quotes Mary Beth Ruskai (1996), an associate editor of Notices of The American Mathematical Society:

…Many experienced faculty question the reliability of student evaluations as a measure of teaching effectiveness and worry that they may have counter-productive effects, such as contributing to grade inflation, discouraging innovation, and deterring instructors from challenging students. [emphasis added]

The same article also quotes J.V. Adams (1997):

Teaching, as with art, remains largely a matter of individual judgment. Concerning teaching quality, whose judgment counts? In the case of student judgments, the critical question, of course, is whether students are equipped to judge teaching quality. Are students in their first or second semester of college competent to grade their instructors, especially when college teaching is so different from high school? Are students who are doing poorly in their courses able to objectively judge their instructors? And are students, who are almost universally considered as lacking in critical thinking skills, often by the administrators who rely on student evaluations of faculty, able to critically evaluate their instructors? There is substantial evidence that they are not.  [emphasis added]

And here’s another article that not only echos the above, but also cites research that has debunked the reliability and usefulness of student evaluations of teachers.  For example, in a major study by Ohio State University in 2007, student reviews were linked to actual learning by examining grades in subsequent classes that would have relied on the learning in the class in which the students’ evaluations were studied. It found absolutely no correlation between student evaluations and actual learning. What the Ohio State researchers did find, as many other studies have found, was clear correlation between the grades the students receive and those they give their professors, providing evidence for the more cynical/realistic interpretation – namely, that professors who are easy graders (and aren’t necessarily the best teachers) earn good ratings. In another finding of concern, the study found evidence that students, controlling for other factors, tend to give lesser evaluations to instructors who are women or who were born outside the United States. And they found this despite not finding any correlation between instructor identity and the level of learning that took place.