Thursday, August 24, 2006

There Is Time to Party when A's Are Easy to Come-by.

It is obvious to nearly everyone who has spent any time in the Centre Region, with the exception of those who are willfully ignorant, that Penn State is a party school. It should also be evident to these people that a major reason that it is a party school is Penn State football. I think we can all agree that eliminating football is not an option for solving the party school problem. There is however a contributing factor to the problem which if eliminated might go a long way to abating the problem.

Penn State is insufficiently challenging for its undergraduates. In all of the excitement about the party school ranking it has been overlooked that Penn State was also 9th in the nation on the students don't study list. Another indication that Penn State is too easy, is rampant grade inflation. The University Faculty Senate (USF) documented this in a 2003 report.

The following graphs are from the UFS report. The first graph is of average GPA versus time. It shows a steady increase in the average GPA at Penn State since the late 1980's. It went from around 2.80 to 3.05 on a four point scale in about fifteen years. The report also looks at average GPA across time for each of the colleges in the University. The second graph shows, that while the grading standards in each school differed, the overall trend is present in each.

The third graph uses percentage of A's awarded as a measure of grade inflation. It too shows the same upward trend starting in the late 1980's that the average GPA graph does. In the last year shown proportion of A's awarded stood near 40%. At the beginning of the inflationary period this proportion was less than 30%.

Everyone is aware that grade inflation was a problem during the Vietnam Era when faculties did not want to condemn students to Vietnam by flunking them out and and ending their student deferments. The next graph places the current period of inflation in the context of the Vietnam Era inflation. The current inflation in the number of A's awarded at Penn State far exceeds that of the Vietnam Era. The rate of inflation during the Vietnam Era appears to be greater than the current period, but constant. The current inflation rate appears to be increasing.

There is another distinction in these periods. The Vietnam Era inflations in grades were at the expense of C's given. The current inflation is at the expense of both B's and C's. In the mid 1990's the percentage A's awarded first surpasses the percentage of B's awarded. This makes A's by far the most often awarded grade at Penn State.

The Faculty Senate Committee sought an explanation for the current inflation. To this end, the following annotated graph was produced to place the inflation in the context of changes made within the University that might effect the grade distribution.

All of the changes noted, with the exception of the SRTE implimentation, are those which should have a positive effect on student learning. SRTE stands for Student Rating of Teaching Effectiveness. In 1987 these student feedback instruments were instituted. Grade inflation followed. All of the possilble other explanation for grade inflation don't stand up to scrutiny, including the idea quality of students admitted to Penn State has increased. The graph of average SAT scores of matriculating freshman versus time shows no systematic increase during the recent inflationary period.

The Faculty Senate danced around the obvious explanation of the cause.
It is very difficult to say exactly what is driving the present increase in GPA over time and why. Because the onset of the increasing GPA is closely tied to the implementation of the SRTE we could argue that the SRTE has had the effect of providing an incentive for the faculty to improve their teaching skills and that improvement is manifested by better grades. Another possibility is that the increase in GPA over time is a consequence of easier grading by faculty seeking higher SRTE scores. We could also argue that there was a delayed benefit from initiating such teaching and learning institutes as the University Scholars Program and the Instructional Development Program. The effect of these trends continued throughout the 1990s as other teaching and learning endeavors came on line as well. However, mean and median SAT scores of incoming students do not support the argument that GPA is increasing because the Penn State student is better prepared than ever before when entering the university.
Based on my observations of faculty grading habits, my money is on easier grading as a result of the SRTE. Along with dodging an explanation for the recent period of grade inflation, the committee settled on some very weak measures to deal with the problem.

1. Grades continue to be assigned solely on the basis of the instructor's judgment as to the student's scholastic attainment as long as the assignment is consistent with university, college, division, and department standards.

2. The President of the University in conjunction with the Deans and Department/Division Heads actively encourages faculty and undergraduate program heads as they work to define, implement, and maintain the standards they deem most appropriate for achieving a vision like one of those depicted in Figure 9.

3. Units actively monitor grade changes over time, take the action necessary to fully understand the reasons for changes, and remedy the situation when it becomes apparent that standards are being compromised and the vision for the institutional standards is not being achieved.

If Spanier is sufficiently serious about changing Penn State into a well respected institution and wants to rid the University of its party school image, it is time for him to grab the bull by the horns and take steps to raise academic standards for undergraduates. I'm not holding my breath. Spanier is all about image, but he won't tackle the tough problems at the core of the image problems. Further he himself is far too anti-intellectual to be an effective intellectual leader.

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