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The Legitimacy of Grades

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: June 17, 1999
E-mail Faculty on the Site.

The Measurement of Competence and Learning
The GRADES we really ought to give.
Trying on Learning Narratives for Size and Fit: Shaping Them to Us

Grades, Good Faith, and Legitimacy (First Draft)
Grades, Good Faith, and Legitimacy (Second Draft)
Grades, Good Faith, and Legitimacy: Data (Third Segment of Draft)
Grades, Good Faith, and Legitimacy: Stories (Fourth Segment of Draft)
Grades, Good Faith, and Legitimacy: Constructs (Fifth Segment of Draft, June 6, 1999)
Grades, Good Faith, and Legitimacy: Flexibility and Structure
(Sixth Segment of Draft, June 6, 1999)

Grades, Good Faith, and Legitimacy:Standards in a World of Legitimacy and Discourse
(Seventh Segment of Draft, June 8, 1999)

Interview with Jonathan Kozol on Grades at Elite Prep Schools
Law Schools Complain of THEIR Grades
Good Faith Hearing of Students' Grade Claims May Be "Mental Gymnastics"
Helping to Construct a Validity Claim or Good Faith and an "Organized" Course
Grade Inflation Discussed by the National Education Association
Affirmative Action: Reconsidering Exclusion

Interview with Jonathan Kozol

On February 20, Pat Acone wrote:

Hi, this morning I was listening to an interview(by the editor of Nation Magazine) of Jonothan Kozol. He stated that people say that he is an easy teacher and that he gives "As". Jonothan says that, on the contrary he is a tough and rigorous teacher. He further states that when he appears at a hearing in DC, some Republican congressman usually asks him if MONEY really makes a difference in school. He reminds us that these Republican congressmen and senators have children attending Groton, Exeter, or other elite Eastern schools. Therefore his response to them is: "It sure works for your children".

Let's pull the theoretical concepts together here. It seems to me that there are two major issues: Kozol's claim that giving A's is not an adequate measure of his rigor and difficulty as a teacher. Pat has identified a measurement problem as identified by Kozol. But the interview that Pat heard either did not go on to a more detailed explanation of measurement validity, or Pat, who was driving at the time, I'll bet, didn't get to take down notes and skipped this part.

If we want to create valid text on this concept we need to go to Kozol's work, or contact him, and develop more extensive information on the measurement he perceives as acceptable.

I can see how Kozol would have jumped from the validity of educational measurement in the schools that he focusses on, as opposed to the validity of educational measurement in the elite schools of the Eastern wealthy. But here we have an intellectual leap to the role of money in education. Good leap, but now let's go back and fill in the steps. What does Kozol see as the differences (measurable) that money provides that result in a different approach to grading in elite schools.

I would recommend that if this phase of our topic interests you, that you do a literature search on the work of Christopher Jencks of Harvard. This was one of his main theses.

CSUDH does not qualify as an elite school. So if there are some advantages that we can identify that accrue to elite schools, perhaps we could also identify some support mechanisms that might balance those advantages for non-elite schools. That could directly affect learning and teaching on our campus.

Law Schools Claim Lack of Legitimacy in Rankings

On February 19, 1998, the New York Times presented a page one article entitled "Judge Not, Law Schools Demand of a Magazine that Ranks Them," by Jan Hoffman. The article opens with:

"Emotional distress. Loss of income. Grave injury to bragging rights.

"These are only some of the damages that law school deans predict will occur when U.S. News and World Report releases its annual ranking of the nations programs later this week."

Could those same results be said to apply to the grading of students? The Deans of the Law Schools believe that the results are so unfair and prejudicial that they have "commissioned a $15,000 study to inveigh against the practice." Other professional schools are objecting also.

This goes to the issue of legitimacy of the ranking indicated by "grades." Who shall decide? Who has the authority to rank? How is that authority held in checks and balances? And by whom? And what are the attendant ramifications of such ranking that were perhaps not there when practices of ranking first developed? How shall we interpret As and Bs earned long ago under very different situations, as against the As and Bs of today? How have the social sciences dealt all along with the differences in reporting that affected far more important measures than those of grades? (Consider for example, measures of child and spousal abuse. How have time and reporting factors affected those measures and the results of their use?) What measures of ranking are legitimate? And how shall legitimacy be enforced and validity claims heard in good faith? These are all major issues in the world of grades today. And it is good to hear the authorities who purport to control all access and legitimacy to ranking howl cries of "NOT LEGITIMATE" when they are in turn ranked.

Schools seem to behave just like students. Hoffman suggests that some "cheat": "some deans resort to 'strategic voting,' denigrating their competitors to pump up their own status." And one dean says that""wealthier schools" took advantage of their wealth to position themselves better, to "market" themselves. Now wouldn't we be appalled if students tried to somehow make other students look worse to make themselves look better, or tried to take advantage of their wealth and perhaps a need not to work to gain extra research time with their professors? Wouldn't we be concerned about a lack of integrity if such events occurred with our students? So shouldn't we be concerned about the integrity evidenced by our schools themselves?

The Dean of Harvard Law is opposed to trying to block the magazine's ranking of schools. But after all, he only has to worry about losing students to Yale. He suggests, in his infinite wisdom, that instead of censuring the discussion of rankings or grades, "he would prefer to see a blooming of other evaluations." So maybe legitimacy could be achieved by increasing the good faith with which alternative measures are given credence, by listening in good faith to all validity claims, especially on a matter that will now affect our emotional well being, our income, and our "bragging rights." Thank you, Harvard. We hope your rival, Yale, will agree.

Check out the article. Consider how legitimacy could be enhanced. Consider what L.Gregory Jones might say about "forgiveness" in this matter. There seems lots of forgiveness is needed here, all around.

New Counseling Approach Adds Textual Readings to Rational Discourse in Good Faith: Husbands Should "Accept Wife's Influence!"

On Saturday morning, February 21, an article by Thomas H. Maugh II appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, under the title: "Study's Advice to Husbands: Accept Wife's Influence." The story reports on an article just appearing in the Journal of Marriage and the Family.

The story suggests that the "active listening" that marriage counselors have been recommending for a very long time just doesn't work; it's too complicated, too hard, for most people to try to listen actively enough to hear the other person's side. The article concludes that the most successful couples are ones in which the husband just accepts the wife's influence.

Now this is fascinating to the production of texts in Dear Habermas because it bears so directly on our appeal to rational discourse in good faith in the promotion of communicative action. If therapists are telling us that "active listening" is like "emotional gymnastics" for most folks, what does this mean to our perception of establishing discourse? Is Habermas asking us to perform "emotional gymnastics" in the interest of community and peace that marriage counselors have just decided is too much to be expected within the smaller community of the family? (The L.A. Times article quotes "psychologist John Gottman of the University of Washington," as saying that "Asking ... couples [to "paraphrase the other partner's concerns--'So what I hear you saying is that . . .'] is like requiring emotional gymnastics.")

What does it mean, that the husband should accept the wife's influence? One partner should guide? But hasn't that traditionally been the husband in the social learning of most of our cultures? And how would this relate to legitimacy? Does the wife's influence somehow acquire legitimacy?

And how would this new finding relate to the influence that students might have on the academic institution? Does the new research show that students should just follow the influence of the institution? follow the rules? accept out-dated grade reporting? and follow the influence of those in authority? Or could we interpret this study to mean that the institution should follow the influence of the students? Frederick Jackson Turner (an orator and historian at the University of Wisconsin at the end of the 19th Century who addressed the issues that would face the state universities) certainly might have something to say about the quagmire facing a state university that would simply acquiesce to the influence of its students.

Find the article in the Journal of Marriage and the Family. It will be available soon. Ask about Frederick Jackson Turner's work, if you want to know more about that. Consider the implications for coming to discourse in good faith.

Proposition 209 Surprises Its Staunchest Supporters by Its Unanticipated Effects

In the February 23 and March 2 issue of the New Yorker, in a section called Annals of the Law, is an article by Jeffrey Rosen on Proposition 209, entitled: "Damage Control". The article highlights the "surprise" of John Yoo, an acting professor of law at Berkeley's Boalt Hall. Yoo has a long conservative history, and he supported Proposition 209, like many others, in what he considered an overall societal interest in meritocracy or achievement-based access and promotion.

We see here the cost that society pays when intellectuals in specific disciplines ignore the special knowledge gathered in other disciplines, in this case, sociology. Yoo seems never to have considered the implications of policy discussions like those of William Julius Wilson (in such of his works as The Truly Disadvantaged). He seems not even to have given serious thought to the basic sociological concepts of ascriptive and achieved status and the interplay between those two in any forms of communicative action we have achieved in this society.

Mortality frightens us. One of the ways in which we cope with mortality is to give of ourselves to our community, our family, our society. Through what we leave to them, we live on, in at least some sense that we seem to comprehend and to cherish. To remove all hope of having a genuine stake in the future and the operation of our society is to remove one major means of moving beyond mortality as we understand it. Wilson argues this point as regards the African-American community.

According to the New Yorker's statistics, "the number of African-Americans accepted fell eighty per cent between 1996 and 1997 [at UCLA Law], from a hundred and four students to only twenty-one... At Berkeley's law school, Boalt Hall, the drop in blacks admitted was also steep, from seventy-four students to fifteen..."

LEGITIMACY. What does this means in terms of legitimacy of access? Will this in fact produce a more meritocratic approach? Or will it tear at the fabric of society through its exclusion of certain groups (other groups are involved in the steep drops in law school admission)? Yoo is confused: "I really thought things would sort themselves out after Proposition 209." Now, it seems "you have to redefine the central mission of the research university in a way that lowers standards for everybody." Is that an accurate explanation of the present exclusion? Are we so sure of our measures and their legitimacy? Have we fully explored inclusion and exclusion in our elite institutions?

Duncan Kennedy, Professor of Law at Harvard, whom Jeanne's students have met in his outrage against the bullying of students by the arrogant elite, in Kairys' Politics of Law,has proposed a lottery for admission to our elite schools. Kennedy, in Kairys' book suggests that the students have been sufficiently confused by the "hierarchical" elitist approach that they come to believe in it, to their own detriment. He speaks of the "patina" of their consent.

Our concern over the "normal grading curve" used in university classes reflects many of these same theoretical concerns. Duncan Kennedy speaks of the bullying of students by the hierarchical elite. Look up the article in The New Yorker; look up the theory, with the guides we've given you, or others available to you.

Grade Inflation Discussed by the National Education Association

In the December 1997 issue of the Advocate there is a dialogue, on p.7, on grade inflation. John Pekich expresses concern that "grade inflation is an insidious process that has disastrous effects on the quality of student education." Pekich includes no discussion of how learning is measured, how the grades he so reveres are derived,and how they are affected by access to learning that is ancillary or prior. Thus, I must assume that by grade inflation he is referring to what a community college professor said years ago of her students who were returning veterans, "Oh, I just give them C's for breathing." If that is what Pekich is referring to, I would call the practice invidious. (Yes, students, insidious and invidious, and extra points to enrolled students for e-mailing the definitions of them both in 25 words or less. jeanne)

Pekich is answered in this dialogue by Jean I. Evans, who is less concerned about the insidious practice of grade inflation because she believes that professors just engaged in it during the 70s and 80s when they needed students so desperately because budget depended on enrollment. That leaves me wondering about her concerns for our collective academic integrity, if we were willing to inflate our grades "for breathing" just to preserve our enterprise. Of course, today we express serious concern over the academic integrity of today's student. Well, if they were brought up in the learning environment Evans describes, perhaps we, their teachers should take a full measure of responsibility for their failure to grasp academic integrity as we define it. But Evans, like Pekich, merely assumes that we all know what we're talking about with grade inflation, kind of like obscenity, I guess.

Neither Pekich nor Evans refers to open door admissions policies that in the 70s made higher education accessible to groups that had hitherto been deprived such access by poor academic training in segregated schools. Neither refers to any of the research efforts to make up for early detriments in training, not even the traditional bugaboo of remedial classes, which pretty much just added the earlier training on as prerequisites. That is precisely what happened after the Second World War, when the returning veterans, whose GI Bill sent them to our professional schools, were deficient in basic academic skills. We added on then, for the first time, courses in Legal Research and Writing. This is not a new pattern, not a pattern related to the affirmative action of Proposition 209 or any other recent bill. This is how we handle inclusion after long periods of exclusion that have left the excluded unable to compete effectively because of the learning of which they were deprived. Look to Bantu education in South Africa.

The problem with remedial classes like Legal Research and Writing is that generations later someone comes along, forgets their history, tries to breathe a different life into them, and causes more grief than gratitude. This was never an adequate solution to undoing the damage done by exclusion. Dewey came closer to understanding that learning could be effected in many ways, primarily by genuine and committed efforts to involve the learner. And Dewey wasn't dealing with end-of-Twentieth Century racism, sexism, elitism. He was dealing with learning, plain and simple.

For the academic elite of our institutions of higher education to displace the frustration and pain of inadequately prepared basic skills onto the students of today is to blame the victim. We understand the phenomenon. It has been well studied in sociology. As we approach the new millennium, we the academic elite who wish to preserve the integrity and legitimacy of the institutions we represent must shoulder the responsibility for teaching and certifying in ways that do no harm to those who have done them no wrong.

If there are those who give people Cs for breathing, the academic institution has a very different problem with them. But perhaps it should recall the extent to which it has admittedly supported the elite and bullying hierarchy of which Duncan Kennedy has complained, and perhaps it should refrain from throwing stones when it appears itself to have built a glass house of highly questionable integrity. I believe that the inflation of grades is an unacceptably cynical response to the lack of integrity of the hierarchy, but if that is the source of the problem, the hierarchy can only maintain its legitimacy by hearing that validity claim in good faith.

This is an issue fundamental to the legitimacy of our academic institutions and to the system of law to which Habermas looks as our primary hope of peace and a future. This brief essay is part of our experiment with intertextuality. If we had to hold this article until it could be thoroughly researched and documented, those of us in small academic institutions would have no hope of publishing it in time for it to have impact in the intertextual readings of the current debate and scholarship on the issue. The Internet has given us the means to a forum. The intensity of our motivation, together with that forum, empowers us to reclaim the integrity of our own participation in the scholarship that is part and parcel of the same grading issue people toss about so cavalierly as a fully agreed upon concept to which we are all privy, Until now the forums have been closed to us. Only arrogant claims of grade inflation had forums in which to be heard. Now, perhaps the validity claims of exclusion and its effects on access to the hierarchy will be heard as well, in good faith, in the interest of legitimacy and the communicative action such legitimacy well might fuel.

A few brief references. See Shulamit Reinharz, on Feminist Methodology, and Catharine MacKinnon, on methodology for feminism. E-mail Jeanne for sources. No time to include just now. But we have them. Like our students, we t sometimes don't have the time to be "traditional" scholars. And like our students, we resent the suggestion that "inflation" is involved, just because some people have more access to the bullying hierarchy.