# How should I grade my students?

Anyone who is interested in my experience as a grader in the past can check this thread.

This semester I was assigned a grader for a certain class, which runs two sections. There are two professors, Professor $A$ and Professor $B$. Both of them using Professor $A$'s personal written textbook and taught on the same schedule using the same set of problems to evaluate the students. As I am the grader, they hand in their midterms to me on Wednesday. They told me because it is not worth upsetting the students with a low grade, I should grade fairly but cut off no more than five points per problem. This gave an effective lower bound of 75 out of 100 for the students. Obviously I did not have a choice but to comply, because they often modify my grading in the past and complain I graded too harshly. I thought at 25 point scale the grade can still reflect the student's performance.

However, I was shocked when I hand in the graded midterms Professor B told me I still graded too harshly. For example, at a certain step in proving $\frac{2n-1}{5n+1}\rightarrow \frac{2}{5}$ the student computed for $n$ large $|f(n)-L|$ equal$$\frac{1}{4n-2}<\frac{1}{4n},\forall n\ge 2$$etc. I cut off all the five points available and gave a mark $\frac{15}{20}$ for this problem. But Professor $B$ claim that this is a inconsequential arithemetic mistake, 2-3 points should be the maximum. In this way he systematically raised up the students' grades to over $90$ unless the students did extremely badly. He told me that if the students receive a mark over 90, then they would be happy. Moreover since no one will complain if he taught the students well, he has no moral hazard by giving free $A$s to most of the students. When I questioned him if the students would learn anything after such a grading process, he admitted that is questionable. But "who cares?". He told me in order to get tenure one has to care about teaching references.

Since there is nothing I can do to Professor $B$'s grade inflation, I graded Professor $A$'s section of students as I did before, only with $15/20$ lower bound on each problem. Professor $A$ asked me how is Professor $B$'s class. After hearing my story, Professor $A$ exhibited deep sympathy with the situation. But to my surprise he proposed to let me inflate his section's grades as well so the students would not consider themselves to be treated unfairly. To be more specific, now about 2/3 of the students can get over $90/100$. However, there is an exception to this rule. There is a student who honestly written he/she cannot finish the test in time, and has to leave the last problem in blank. Since I cannot give a blank problem $15/20$, her final grade around $70$ was the lowest in the class even though her performance is not the lowest judged by the test paper. There are plenty of student written nonsense like the above equation and I have to grade them $15/20$ at first, and now maybe $18/20$ with Professor $A,B$'s personal policy.

I want to know (without disclosing more detailed personal information), if there is anything I can do to avoid behaving dishonestly like this in future. I know I have to compromise to live in the academia, but I found the whole inflation scenario to be totally absurd. When I think about it, the obvious answer is I should refuse to grade with $75/100$ at first, then maybe the next string of things would not happen. However doing that would not change the grade inflation at all since the Professors have the final say on the grades. I proposed to be the TA for their sections for free as I felt morally awkward at this moment. I want to ask for others with similar experience if this is a normality to be expected in any ranking $\approx 100$ university or a sign of academic corruption singularly at here.

Also, why the honest person should suffer while others being inflated? To me it is not someone's fault that he or she tried hard but still learned the subject very slowly. I know my department's funding policy depends on the students' performance. My guess is with a new $70$ on her midterm, her academic position is endangered significantly. But there is nothing I can do to change it. I felt somehow guilty even though I am not responsible for her performance as I am not the teaching for the class.

update:

My proposal of setting up personal office hour was accepted. However it seems I have to inflate my grades in future as well for Professor $B$. I felt very complicated.

update:

After taking a look at my grading results, Professor $A$ considered the inflation I had done is not enough to bring it to the level of Professor $B$'s inflations. As a result he asked me to cancel my office hours and spend more time on grading (he suppose if I spend more time on the grade inflation thing, I would do it better). Since I have to "match" Professor $B$'s inflation scale, I asked him personally and he said he is effectively grading on 5 point scale. So as long as student write something, no one will be cut off more than 3 points.

This is one of the most disappointing events in my short budding career.

• If it helps, I do not think that you should feel guilty here. Perhaps you should grade as expected, so that the university will get the reputation it deserves? Oct 19, 2013 at 3:26
• I feel like this thread belongs on the academia stackexchange board, as it is not exclusive (or dependent) on the fact that the courses being graded are mathematics courses. Oct 19, 2013 at 5:25
• This question appears to be off-topic because it is about academic issues rather than math. I think moving this to the academia stackexchange would be ideal. Oct 19, 2013 at 5:26
• Prof. $B$ has no business teaching. I have a little sympathy for Prof. $A$ in that situation, but only a very little: the notion that a page of nonsense is worth more than a blank page is unprofessional rubbish. I’d much rather have a student answer half of the questions well and leave the rest blank than have one do a half-assed job on every question. Oct 19, 2013 at 20:17
• With some exceptions I typically graded individual problems on a scale of $10$, and I used the entire range. I also made no effort to design exams to fit a predetermined set of grade cutoffs (e.g., $90$% for an A): I set the exams that I wanted to set and then interpreted the results. Consequently I generally got high scores around $80$% or perhaps $85$% and generally considered that a good score. A student who averaged $80$% for the term was generally going to be at or very near the top of the class. $50$% was quite likely to be a middling C. Oct 19, 2013 at 21:48

"I want to know (without disclosing more detailed personal information), if there is anything I can do to avoid behaving dishonestly like this in future."

Two things. You can tell the chair and the graduate coordinator that you do not want to be assigned to either of those two professors any more and explain why (I hope that it is not the universal attitude towards grading at your college; if it is, you are just in a wrong place at a wrong time to save your moral integrity). When you become a professor yourself, grade in the way consistent with your own moral principles and make sure that you are a good enough researcher to make the department worry about losing you, not you worry about losing job at any particular place. Moral integrity of a slave is an oxymoron, and the choice between living on knees and dying upright can be postponed for a worthier crusade.

For your moral peace, I can assure than such practices are not widespread. Some grade curving is probably common, but free A's are not.

I find the profs behavior appalling but there is one caveat, which is the administration's attitude. It might be the case that the profs are really pressured into having "happy students" and in such situation is harder to be a purist.

• I do not really know, but I think the administration got pressure from the parents to grade leniently on their children's performances. One of the parents called my school's president to lift his/her child's grades. Whether this pressure is conducted to us, I do not know. Oct 19, 2013 at 3:15
• I suspect that the administration is in fact levying pressure, based on many similar observations. Oct 19, 2013 at 3:45
• Most likely. In fact, I don't envy their position. The university needs the students' tuition, and so enrollment numbers are essential. Students and parents don't want to see their investment in education go sour, and they want to blame someone else if they fail. Oct 19, 2013 at 3:48
• I had a private conversation with one of the professors here a long time ago, when I proposed to let the students teach themselves calculus instead of letting them buying the expensive Stewart book and learn little afterwards. He told me the very same thing and asked me to be realistic that the students needs to be "educated". Oct 19, 2013 at 3:59

This is ridiculous - no matter how much pressure there is from the administration, this is academic dishonesty of an absurd level. Perhaps this is too idealistic, but if I were you, I would continue to grade in a fashion that I think is correct. If the professors are unhappy with that, they can regrade it themselves. If they end up grading all the answer papers again, then they themselves will realize the futility of fighting with you.

Furthermore, I would write an open letter to the administration expressing my thoughts (without taking names, though). If you are on good terms with said bureaucrats, then that might lead to some changes.

Of course, all this is tempered by the fact that such actions might lead to unpleasant consequences for you, which is something you have to think about before taking on the world.

• Thank you. I really tried, but when Professor $A$ asked me in private to inflate the grades according to what Professor $B$ did so that the two sections are graded in the same way, I realized I got into a morally hazardous situation. I really do not know what to do now. Oct 19, 2013 at 3:36
• @user32240 : If he wants you to change a grade that you think is incorrect, ask him to give it you in writing. If he doesn't, then tell him that you cannot do it without written authorization. Oct 19, 2013 at 3:48
• No, I have no right to do that. As the instructor he has the right to change the grade in whatever way he likes. He decided that final formal grade, not me. This would infuriating him and not solving anything. Oct 19, 2013 at 3:52

An honest person at a corrupt institution will be either corrupted or made miserable. Leave as soon as you can, and publish the name of the institution when you are beyond its reach.