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On Grades and STEM

The other day I was reading () Desire2Learn Acquires Course-Suggestion Software Inspired by Netflix and Amazon. The article discusses a program that uses information in a student's transcript, along with historical information about other students, to "generate individualized course suggestions based on a five-star scale". I don't have much of a problem with that. I'm fine with software reminding students of the courses they need for their major, what courses they still need to complete graduation requirements. What set me steaming is that the program will also suggest "what courses they will more easily pass, even offering estimated final grades." What do we think a student will do if the program says the student might get a B or a C in a course?!?

I don't want to discount that grades indicate something about mastery. But I don't think grades can tell us everything. Unfortunately, parents, teachers, and students at all levels have bought into the idea that anything below an A is a death knell. This is doing real damage to our ability to recruit and retain STEM majors. We've had grade inflation in STEM fields, for sure (see http://gradeinflation.com for loads of information on the subject), but I like to think we are buffered a bit by the quantitative nature of many of our assessment tools (exams, certainly, tend to be graded in a completely quantitative fashion).

This leads to an unfortunate situation. A student who is passionate about a STEM discipline will change fields if he or she is getting Bs and Cs in STEM courses but finds they can pull off higher grades in other courses. Or a student won't even consider work in a STEM field because "it's hard", or because "I can't afford not to keep up my GPA". I think of all the C students I've had in computer science whose grades do not reflect their ability in the field, but might reflect that the student was too busy building their own mail server to study for the exam. I think about the B students who were enthusiastic and passionate about computing and who I am certain will perform admirably in their jobs if they have good managers.

I miss my elementary school days when we got a grade for the quality of our work and a number for effort. At least then you could differentiate between the B-1, meaning a student tried hard and only achieved B level mastery, and the B-2, meaning the student probably could have done A work with more effort. I don't think we can afford to scare away the B-1 and B-2 students, or the C-2 students. But we'll always struggle to keep them if grade inflation continues to be rampant. When 95% of a high school class graduates with an A- average, when almost 45% of college grades are As, we have very serious problem, and it's doing serious damage to our ability to recruit and retain students in STEM disciplines.

Valerie Barr
Chair, CSTA Computational Thinking Task Force

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