Grading is a necessary evil.
As we train the next generation of STEM professionals, we use a filter that selects against marginalized folks, on account of their ethnicity, income, gender, and other aspects of identity. This, I hope you realize, is an ethical and pragmatic problem, and constrains a national imperative to maintain competitiveness in STEM.
When we are working for equity, this usually involves working to remediate perceived deficiencies relative to the template of a well-prepared student — filling in gaps that naturally co-occur with the well-established inequalities that are not going away anytime soon. These efforts at mitigation are bound to come up short, as long as they’re based on our current Deficit Model of STEM Recruitment.
I’ve received a number of comments about one of the recommended reads from last Friday. It was about the New York Times op-ed piece, about why people shouldn’t grade on a curve. And then, I asked, who does that anymore? The answer is: a lot of people. In addition to the comments on the post, I’ve gotten some emails and chatted with a few people (here while I’m at the International Congress of Entomology in Orlando, Florida).
One friend is in a department in which all faculty are rigorously required to conform their grades to a particular distribution, and they can’t submit their grades unless they follow this practice.
Imagine this scene: A professor at work gets a phone call.
Phone Voice: Hi, I’m the parent of Bill Smith, a student in your intro class.
Professor: Um, hi..?
Phone Voice: Bill was upset about the score he got on a quiz last week, and he thought some of the questions were unfair.
Professor: I’m sorry but I’m prevented from discussing a student’s academic records under the protection of FERPA [the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act].
Phone Voice: But I am his parent and Bill told me it was okay to speak with you about it.
Professor: That might be true, but without evidence of a FERPA waiver signed by the student, I can’t have this conversation.
Phone Voice: Oh, we had that waiver form signed at orientation.
Phone Voice: During an orientation session together with our son, the university presented to him a waiver form to sign to waive access to FERPA. It’s on record. I can email a copy if you want.
Professor: I prefer the student talk to me about his own grades.
Phone Voice: I realize that, but I have the right to discuss his grades with you and I’d like to talk about question three on the quiz.
I’ll be soon be sharing specific ideas about what can be done about the disadvantages experienced by talented students who attend non-prestigious undergraduate institutions. But first, I thought it would be useful for me to share how this topic has affected my inbox.
I barely get any email related to this site. Aside from the site stats, and some interactions on twitter, I wouldn’t have any other indicator about readership. So when I receive the occasional email related to this site, it stands out.
In relative terms, I got several metric tons of emails about last week’s post about NSF graduate fellowships.
I had a conversation a couple months ago about the fact that I’m a bit wary of taking Straight-A students into my lab as research students. Here’s an explanation.