A Question of Fairness and Education… and Grade Inflation

So I’ve run into a stumbling block in my own head. How do we strike a balance between fairness and increasing student performance? Let me take a step back…

Extra credit street sign.

SOURCE: Sandra Cheng, https://openlab.citytech.cuny.edu/fylcartoffoodfall2014/tag/extra-credit/

In my classes, I give my students exams. Some students do well while others do not. Same old story. I am contemplating allowing my students the ability to correct their exams for some extra credit points. They would also be required to complete totally new, though  similar questions, in order to get credit. Obviously, all of the student can get those extra credit points and everyone can increase their grade in the class. However, the high performing students cannot arbitrarily raise their grade since there isn’t a grade higher than A (I only get to submit letter grades). Therein lies the problem: part of my brain says it is unfair to allow one set of students to raise their grades more (in terms of letter grades) than the better performing students.

A person pumping up a balloon "A".

SOURCE: Eric Meckley, http://www.ethosreview.org/intellectual-spaces/whats-in-an-a/

Then there’s the matter of grade inflation. I am allowing a group of students to raise their grades on the exam by possibly a letter grade. This seems to be the definition of grade inflation. Allowing all the poorly performing students to raise their grades, am I not going to see a general increase in the average grades of the students in the course? Isn’t this a bad thing? It seems to me that it is only a bad thing if that general increase in the average grade is not accompanied by a correspond increase in the amount of knowledge that the students have acquired. As long as the students have learned more…

It occurs to me that the problem may be with the letter grading scheme in general. In a percentage system, the student’s grade percentage is a measure of how much they know. I expect that every student needs to learn at least 70% of the material in order to successfully complete my course. As such, whether or not the student uses the corrections to increase their knowledge doesn’t matter. The student’s percentage is still the fraction of the information that they have learned.

Of course this brings me to a much bigger question… how can I be sure that my assignments are actually measuring the student’s learning? How do I know that when a students scores a 90% on an exam they actually know 90% of the material? Not having the answer to that questions, I fear I have to leave this topic here… for now.