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Faculty Meeting Report

It was the best of meetings and the worst: there was fumbling, data-free pontificating about a subject that had been covered equally shallowly for decades and, also, thoughtful, logical exposition that both advanced an argument and responded to counter-arguments from the floor before they were voiced.

First off was the Curricular Review Committee’s exposition on distributive requirements — a subject that self-admittedly comes up every generation or so. This time around the pendulum was swinging toward fewer constraints on student choice, after the last revision in 1991 had obliged students to navigate a labyrinth of rules and restrictions. Everyone was having a jolly time until Professor of Anthropology Deborah Nichols, seemingly a non-reader of Dartblog, advanced the same argument that I had adduced in this space that very morning. She stated in her remarks:

It would be great, though, if at some point we institute some kind of measures for the success of these things [distributive requirements] since we’ve now gone from one to the other and back again. Maybe since we are an educational institution, we could do some research and know something about the patterns from the course selection of our students and whether any of this makes a lot of difference or not. [Emphasis added]

Ouch. By the standards of faculty meetings where collegiality is prized over all other values, including coherence and logic, Professor Nichols’ was an acid comment.

Of course, the other amusing aspect of the Committee’s proposals was that in my day, distributives consisted of English 5, Freshman Seminar, the language requirement, and four course each in the Humanities, the Sciences and the Social Sciences divisions. Plus ça change.

But on to more meaty topics: in this instance a presentation about grade inflation by Professor of Biology Mark McPeek that recalled for the audience that research and preparation lead to progress. McPeek reviewed the current state of grading at Dartmouth, advocated a specific strategy for change, and then addressed and shot down with solid data the varied misconceptions about grading under which many faculty members have labored for years.

McPeek began his review by noting the steady rise in median grades at the College — and he concludes as this space did on March 1, 2014, that if present trends continue, in another fifty or so years, all Dartmouth graduates will be valedictorians:

McPeek Grade Inflation rate.jpg

He observed that the number of A and A- grades accorded to Dartmouth students had almost doubled in the last 40 years:

McPeek Grade Inflation A A-.jpg

And the rate of increase has been fairly constant across academic divisions:

McPeek Grade Inflation Across Divisions.jpg

McPeek noted no correlation between the increase in grades and the average SAT scores of Dartmouth students (which he used as a proxy for increasing intelligence) — which jumped substantially in an early year of the Freedman administration, with no proportionately corresponding change in grades at that time:

McPeek Grade Inflation SAT scores.jpg

McPeek then responded to a series of arguments about why faculty feel compelled to offer inflated grades. He observed firstly that enrollments in all departments at Dartmouth (with the exception of Economics) followed national trends, and had little to do with steps taken by the faculty in Hanover:

McPeek Grade Inflation Enrollment.jpg

And that tighter grading will not hurt the chances of admission for Dartmouth students applying to medical schools:

McPeek Grade Inflation Med School Applications.jpg

McPeek Grade Inflation Med School Applications1.jpg

He also noted an inverse correlation between a student’s expected grade and the amount of work done in a course: the higher the expected grade, the less time spent on out-of-class work:

McPeek Grade Inflation Expectations v Work.jpg

McPeek made various other arguments relating to pressure on faculty to grade more leniently, and he concluded with a notion radical in its simplicity: professors should grade students’ work based on the ORC’s scholarship grade rankings established in 1973-4:

McPeek Grade Inflation Conclusion.jpg

All in all, McPeek showed the assembled faculty what thorough analysis and muscular scholarship is all about. Bravo. When his full presentation is on-line, I’ll publish the link.

Addendum: Valley News reporter Rob Wolfe ‘12 did a fine job in yesterday’s paper of summarizing the logical flow of Mark McPeek’s presentation on grade inflation.

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