Cornell has made it a practice of posting the median grades for each class online. Not surprisingly, recent studies have shown that students are drawn to classes with higher median grades, thus encouraging grade inflation. This is no small difference: the studies found “a 50 percent increase in the enrollment of courses with a median grade of an A from 1998 to 2004.” What’s worse, up until this point the median grades have been available on the registrar’s website, thus making the information available to students, but not on transcripts, where it might prove revealing for potential employers. At least in upcoming years they’re planning to have the median grade report next to the student’s grade on transcripts, so the students aren’t the only ones “benefiting” from the system.
The idea behind making median grade reports available is that it provides greater “transparency.” I’m not, for once, in favor of transparency. Students are already basing their class choices on whether or not it’s a convenient time slot; do we really need them choosing classes based on whether or not they can skim right through it without doing any work? There’s clear evidence linking the reports to class choices: during enrollment week, the hits on the median grade report webpage go up significantly. So if I have the misfortune of taking over a class that was taught by a lenient grader in the previous year, I may well find my entire classroom filled with mediocre writers expecting A’s.
Students, not surprisingly, are protesting the inclusion of median grade reports on their transcripts. One argument runs like this: “it isn’t fair to upperclassmen to have median grade reports on their transcript for courses they took as freshmen and sophomores when at the time, they were not aware median grades would ever be included.” Something tells me students aren’t protesting having the median course grades available for themselves . . . Are you pitying them yet? How about this: “Median grades are calculated for a course on the whole, not taking into account the teacher of the course. While it is possible to have an inadequate teacher, causing grades to be lower in a certain section, those students will still be held against the median grade for the course on their transcript.” Yeah, I’m sure that’s the major explanation (it’s the only one given) for low grades.
And while there was talk of restricting the number of high grades given out, the response from the administration is as follows: “I don’t think anybody at Cornell is going to tell faculty how to grade any time soon.” No, not explicitly, but those faculty who can draw more students (whether through lenient grading or through good teaching) will be in a much better position than those faculty who can’t.