Scott Jaschik has an interesting article on grade inflation at Inside Higher Ed.
It seems in an effort to fight grade inflation, colleges and universities have placed limits on the amount of A's students can receive in a course. It hasn't gone well:
A number of colleges and universities adopted policies designed to curb grade inflation. But one of the most prominent of those institutions -- Princeton University -- now appears poised to roll back the most controversial part of its policy: a limit of 35 percent on the A-range grades awarded in each course. A faculty report released Thursday made that recommendation, and it was endorsed by the university's president.
I've never understood the impulse to limit the amount of A's and B's that can be received in a course. Maybe it is because I was trained in a standards-based system, where grades served as signals of how much students learned during the course. It was simple, if all students met my expectations, then they all earned B's. Students that went beyond the goals of the class earned A's.
Normative grading -- where average grades become C's and students are sorted around the mean -- limits the amount of A's available for the course. Rather than measuring how much students learned, you're now measuring how much students learned compared to other students in the course.
Among other things, this means grades are now difficult to compare over time, because each semester will contain a different mix of students. The same student doing the same work in semester X could get a different grade compared to semester Y.
In addition, students are now incentivized to fight for grades. Any sense of cooperation goes out the window. Why form study groups when you’d just be helping your opponent do better in class?
Can you see how this would be a problem? As the article notes, the students at Princeton did:
The faculty report at Princeton noted the unpopularity of the current policy with students. The 35 percent targets for A-range grades "are too often misinterpreted as quotas. They add a large element of stress to students’ lives, making them feel as though they are competing for a limited resource of A grades," the report says.
Rather than focusing on the content, students were looking at their peers. Students stressing out because a class is difficult is perfectly fair. Students stressing because they have to meet a moving target based on peer performance? Not so fair.
Princeton and other schools are right to scrap limits on A's.