We Americans like to tell ourselves that we live in an egalitarian society where anyone can make it if they try. But a functioning meritocracy depends on being able to measure merit. And there is something profoundly wrong with one of the most important metrics our society employs: classroom grades.
It is well established that the educational institutions with the highest price-tags are also those with the highest average grades. That might be justifiable if the best students paid the highest tuition and there were some universal system of evaluation used by all teachers to evaluate students, such that a grade meant the same thing at every university. Lacking such a standard, institutions assign grades according to their own policies.
These idiosyncratic differences in policies between institutions and schools produce arbitrary inconsistencies in how grades are assigned. Some universities just give lower grades than others, and some majors and teachers just give lower grades than others. Within institution, these arbitrary differences often lead to lower grades among those in the natural sciences and engineering. These differences are poorly correlated with the rigor of the academic program. The result is that students’ achievement is compared using a multitude of yardsticks which have not themselves been compared. In truth, grades are much more useful for distinguishing student achievement within a program than between programs or institutions.
Lenient grading at private colleges would not be a problem if those interpreting those grades understood the distribution from which they were drawn and discounted appropriately. But that possibility is contradicted by research results I published with my colleagues, Sam Swift, Zach Sharek, and Francesca Gino, in the journal PLoS One. We find that people, even experts like graduate school admissions officers, tend to treat high grades as evidence of high achievement without accounting for differences in grading. Even when they know that some institutions grade more leniently they have trouble factoring that knowledge into their interpretation of grades.
The result is that students at elite colleges, who already have innumerable social and economic advantages, are given yet another leg up. Why is this a problem? Because the stratification of education is undermining the accessibility of the American Dream. Children tend to follow the educational trajectories of their parents, and employers in the United States pay a premium for those with advanced education. Successful graduates of elite universities have the highest rates of employment and the best jobs.
Someone born into poverty has more difficulty rising up in the United States than in Europe. An American child born into the bottom fifth of the income distribution has a 42% chance of staying there as an adult, and only an 8% chance of making into the top fifth. By contrast, there is substantially more mobility between rungs on the social ladder in Great Britain.
The “Matthew Effect” tells us that sometimes the rich get richer, enjoying greater opportunities and rewards not because of their greater talents but simply by virtue of already being among the fortunate. Using a more forgiving yardstick to measure the achievements of those fortunate enough to attend elite colleges reinforces social stratification in exactly this way.
Private institutions have sought to hide that advantage by becoming ever more cagey about their grading practices. Fewer universities now publicly report class averages, nor will they provide information on an individual’s class rank. They would like to avoid the scorn that Harvard endured in 2001 when it was revealed that nearly 90% of its students graduated with honors.
Those of us who rely on information about student achievement for hiring, awards, or graduate school admission should insist on getting the full picture. We should demand to know where students rank among their peers. Not all students are above average compared to their classmates, even at the most expensive private colleges.
By no means would honest disclosure about grading practices transform America into an egalitarian society where getting ahead was primarily determined by the content of one’s character. But the success of any meritocratic system depends on being able to measure and assess merit, and grades are one of the most important measures of intellectual merit we have.