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Grading Disparity Between Departments: Even Worse Than You Thought

This is Part 5 of a series: Here is Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

About a month ago, in Part 3 of this extended series on grade inflation at Dartmouth, I showed how grading standards vary wildly between academic departments. For example, the average course median grade over the last five years in Theater was 3.90, while in Chemistry it was only 3.22. As it turns out, there’s reason to believe that this calculation actually underestimated the problem.

Since I wrote that initial post, a number of people have reached out to me wondering about the effect of enrollment size on the analysis. We saw last time how small courses tend to have higher median grades. But the original department/program-specific data I published didn’t take that fact into account. That chart didn’t differentiate between large courses and small courses — meaning that 100 grades curved around a lower median for an introductory course had the same weight as a high-median, 12-student advanced seminar. Weighting the grades by enrollment isn’t more accurate, but it shows something slightly different. Rather than giving an average based solely on total courses, it should more closely reflect the total number of individual grades given out, albeit imperfectly.

For departments that have roughly equally-sized courses, or similar grading standards between large and small courses, the difference is not large. However, you’ll see that some departments suffer big drops or jump slightly higher compared to their peers. Comparative Literature, for example, went from the eighth-highest median grades to the fifth-highest, suggesting that their larger classes actually give better grades than their smaller ones. Most departments went in the opposite direction, though, including nearly every science and social science. See the full results below:

Weighted Medians.png

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