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Objective vs. Competitive Grading

Outside of mythical Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, is it really possible for all the children to be above average?

Mathematically, no. But when it comes to assessing academic grades – and more importantly, what they tell us about a student – the answer is more complicated.

There are two basic ways an instructor or institution can approach the subject of grades. I call them the objective model and the competitive model.

In the objective model, students are supposed to learn a certain set of material. If every student in a class learns every bit of the material, then every student deserves an A or its equivalent. The A represents mastery of the subject matter. Lesser grades convey lesser mastery.

In the competitive model, students are graded not against a set of expected achievements, but against one another. With a strict enough curve, this becomes a zero-sum game: Every student’s advancement on the grading score must be offset by another student’s regression. If it turns out that all the students in the class do superb work, then the assignment of grades must turn on increasingly arbitrary or irrelevant criteria. The same would be true in a class full of floundering imbeciles. Either way, the resulting grades wouldn’t tell us as much about the individual’s skills, at least not without knowing the context in which they were awarded.

If you guessed that I am a fan of objective grades, you are partly right. I like them better than the competitive model, because achievements in life generally are not a win-lose proposition. The greatness of one scientist, musician or plumber does not make another person in that field any less accomplished. But even objective grades don’t tell us much if they are so distorted that they do not reflect actual achievement.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that increasing numbers of students are graduating with Latin honors such as cum laude, magna cum laude or summa cum laude (or the equivalents of such honors) at top colleges and universities. Nearly half of the graduates at Princeton University, the University of Southern California and Lehigh University graduated with honors; more Harvard and Johns Hopkins students earned the designations than did not.

The degree to which this development is a problem depends on the person you ask and the way you look at it. Spreading honors among more students arguably dilutes their impact, as with high school valedictorians. On the other hand, one could argue that if schools tie honors to grade point averages, under an objective grading model it is hardly surprising that academically rigorous programs end up with a lot of students who demonstrate mastery of the curricula.

That does not explain, however, why the proportion of students meeting the GPA thresholds has increased overall in the past decade or so. Grade inflation seems a likelier culprit.

Many elite schools cap the number of students who can receive academic honors per graduating class, but the caps are not consistent between schools, which means that most people without ties to a particular school – including potential employers – can derive relatively little information from academic honors on their own. And while some schools, such as Georgetown University, have moved toward a competitive model to try to ensure honorifics reflect distinction, this solution still doesn’t solve the problem of trying to decipher the award as an outsider without a broader context.

For many positions at Palisades Hudson, particularly at entry level, we look at applicants’ academic transcripts. We take this approach for several reasons. One is basic due diligence, to confirm that candidates attended the institutions and attained the credentials they claim on their resume or application. A second is to see what subjects they studied, so we can understand the academic foundation they bring to their work and identify places where we might need to fill in some gaps. A third is to gauge how well they performed and, equally importantly, to gain insight into how consistent their performance was. Consistent B grades can be easier to accept than grades that vary wildly between As and Cs, even when the latter transcript yields a higher grade-point average.

There is no single mechanical test in our method. We are trying to understand the candidates overall, not dissect their blow-by-blow history. Naturally, we also put more weight on the academic background of a recent graduate than on someone who has been in the workforce for many years, because we have other information on which to judge more experienced applicants.

Our system works most of the time, but there have been some noteworthy surprises. Occasionally we hire someone who did very well in school – even in a course whose content aligns closely with the new hire’s work assignments – only to find that the new hire seems lost at sea, sometimes not even capable of rescue with colleagues’ support. On those occasions we wonder: How did this person get the grades that were on the transcript?

There are several possibilities, none of which are good. If a student cheated his or her way to a particular grade or to a high overall grade-point average, that would bode particularly ill for the student’s prospects, for many reasons. More likely, however, either the school’s student body was weak overall and the high grades resulted from a competitive curve, or the school (or the departments relevant to us) hands out good grades like Halloween candy. That might be good for current enrollment, but it is not so good when it comes time to get down to business.

We are a small company, so we seldom have a large sample size from which to evaluate a particular school or program. This could lead us to become too critical after a particularly disappointing hire. But we invest a lot of time and effort to recruit the right people. If someone comes from a particular institution with strong grades but proves to be a complete washout, we think twice before we recruit from that institution again. We probably won’t write off that school’s graduates entirely, but the experience could make the difference in a close call between two future candidates.

Regardless of how they are awarded, honorific titles like valedictorian or magna cum laude don’t matter very much at all beyond the academy, and this is apparently true for many businesses besides ours. Such awards are very nice for students and their families, but they tell us what we already know from the transcript – in fact, they tell us less than that transcript does. The Latin labels are the packaging, not the product.

Note to colleges: Businesses care about the product. Send us graduates whose accomplishments reflect the grades you awarded, and we’ll all be happy.

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