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Biased Against the Bright

In the old days, university teachers used to post their grades on their office doors at end of term for all to see. Usually -- although not always -- student names were omitted from the list, the students identified only by their student numbers. Eventually the practice, like many reasonable ones, had to be abandoned due to privacy concerns. When I was a new professor at a Canadian university on the prairies, I used to go around to my colleagues’ doors to see the spread of their grades and occasionally to note how my favorite students, the best of the past term, were faring in other courses.

So far as I am aware, my assessment of the students was uncolored by personal preference. Excellent students tend to stand out markedly from their merely adequate or promising peers, their understanding and expression inarguably superior. Of course, it is possible that the students I had singled out as brilliant did not perform equally well in other classes for a variety of personal or academic reasons, though it is far more often the case that an excellent student performs equally well -- or nearly so -- in all of his or her courses.

When I checked my colleagues’ doors, I was immediately struck that some students I had identified as superior received merely good rather than excellent grades -- marks in the low 80s (no longer a high mark in our grade-inflated times), lumped in with many others of only moderate ability. In some cases a student I had deemed excellent received exactly the same grade as a student whose performance was not at all outstanding. There they were: both at 82. A number of professors, I noted, employed a narrow band of marks, ranging from 68 at the very low end (C+) to 83 or 84 (A-) at the high end, with the majority of students clustered in the 77-80 range. Were the students really all so indistinguishably "good" in these classes? My experience had always been, and continues to be, that students are vastly different both in their capabilities and their performance, ranging from the astonishingly superior A+ -- so good that one wonders helplessly what one has to teach such a student -- to the abysmal F -- so bad that, again, one wonders helplessly what one can teach such a student. So why the compressing of grades in the "fair to quite good" band?

I also noticed, in speaking to my colleagues, that the criterion of excellence did not dominate their assessments of students so clearly as I had expected. Professors were concerned with a range of human factors: how hard the student had tried, the evident improvement of the student over the term, and, perhaps most especially, the difficulties against which the student was struggling. These difficulties often figured in their justifications. “She is a single mother with two young children,” one of my colleagues said to me in explanation of why she accepted a late paper without applying her regular penalty, “I’m amazed that she can manage to attend at all, and I wanted to reward her for her perseverance against the odds.”

“I wanted to give him a mark that showed his great improvement over the term,” another said in explanation of awarding an A- (that ultimate fudge grade, which has replaced the former B+ fudge-grade) to a student whose written work was still decidedly rough, with numerous grammatical and structural lapses. “He has come such a long way despite all the circumstances stacked against him; and I know his success will enable him to become a role model for his community.” Instructor assessment of the personal factors behind student performance did not only work in favor of disadvantaged students but also, in some cases, against the proficient: “Yes, he is very good,” another said, in response to my praise for a young man whose ability had impressed me, “But I didn’t get the sense he had as much personally invested as some of his classmates, who had really lived the experience of oppression the poetry explores. For that reason, they were able to bring a depth of personal response and passion that his more scholarly approach couldn’t supply.” Pretty hard to argue against so committed a betrayal of objectivity.