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TAs speak out about U of T grading deflation allegations

ZACH KOH/THE VARSITY

TAs speak out about U of T grading deflation allegations

On being caught in the crosshairs, student misperceptions, and institutional pressure

A Twitter post has recently reignited a longrunning debate in the university: grade deflation and inflation. The tweet featured a screenshot of a message that an instructor sent to students, announcing that their grades would now be capped at a certain level for the sake of “countering the issue of grade inflation.” The post was retweeted more than 500 times and was also posted on Facebook, where it further drew agitated comments from the student body.

Melissa Hill, Executive Director in the Faculty of Communications and Public Affairs at U of T, recently wrote to The Varsity claiming that the email was a miscommunication, and that the assignment would not be capped. Yet this very much runs against the tone of the original message.

Grade inflation is when many students score a disproportionate amount of A and B grades. Whereas, grade deflation is when students are purposely marked harsher — meaning that the students who performed above average might still score in the C range. In this sense, marks have less to do with student performance and more to do with the university’s grading policy.

The Varsity spoke to a wide range of students, teaching assistants (TAs), and a union representative for TAs when reporting this issue.

It should be noted that some graduate students and TAs told The Varsity that they didn’t believe grade deflation occurred in their departments.

Others acknowledged the practice but were unwilling to speak about it, ultimately raising the question of how pervasive and far-reaching this issue is.

A student’s perspective on the issue

Based on comments from Twitter and Facebook about grade deflation at U of T, it is clear that many undergraduate students are highly dissatisfied with these practices.

Maddie Diab, a fourth-year student studying international relations, was one of the many who commented on one of the posts, and spoke with The Varsity regarding the practice.

She recounted one instance when she followed her TA’s critiques to improve her work, and still only achieved a 70. On her insistence, the TA reread the paper and accepted that it was good, but he still refused to change the grade, saying that he probably had just read her paper after reading one that got a 90.

“I understand that because it was a big class, there were a lot of people who were naturally going to be better than me,” Diab said. “But… I never feel like I’m graded independently of other people… It’s not arbitrary, but the whole thing’s relative, and it’s really frustrating.”

Ultimately, she felt like her grade was dependent on how other students did, as opposed to the quality of her work and the expectations outlined in a rubric.

Diab acknowledged that what she said is anecdotal, and that her experiences are primarily rooted in the humanities and social science departments. However, she still felt that the issue of grade deflation and inflation is widespread.

She also reflected on how this has affected students’ mental health. For herself and her peers, it is highly demotivating to put your all into an assignment and then receive a grade that is much lower than you expected.

“It literally happens to every one of us — that we all feel our grades are being deflated,” she said. “I just feel like there is a huge battle of ‘We need better mental health services’… and then there was this battle about ‘We need to stop capping grades.’ And I think people didn’t realize or weren’t able to verbalize how connected they are.”

However, Diab does not blame the TAs — they have their own instructions to follow. Instead, she blames the university as a whole. For her, the solution is for instructors to follow rubrics and grading schemes that clearly indicate a score for each skill demonstrated — such as clarity of argument and writing ability.

“I never thought it was the TA’s fault,” she said. “People were putting a lot of blame on the TAs, and it’s their job. You got to do what you got to do.”

TAs speak out about their experiences

The Varsity heard from TAs who have seen evidence of grade deflation and inflation at U of T. The two TAs who currently work for the university spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisal.

One TA who spoke to The Varsity on the condition of anonymity is a graduate student in the biology department and an advocate for mental health. She said that there is pressure for her to maintain a class average — students who are either too high or too low are pushed closer to that average.

“The sense that I got is that the university enforces an average for all the courses, so you can’t have too many As,” she said.

In one instance, she was told that she had given too many A grades, so she had to change the way she was marking. In another instance, she was instructed to give higher grades even though the students were not doing the work.

She noted that not being able to be clear about the grading policy, and being pressured to give students grades that they may not deserve, quickly becomes stressful. She has discussed this issue with her peers, and for them it seems that this is the way it has always been. This is a source of frustration for some TAs, as many of them plan to devote their lives to being educators, but they also see the anxiety that the grades bring about in students.

“As a TA, you notice the [undergraduate students], how stressed out they are,” she said. “That they are affected not just by this, but in general by the environment of the university and how we define success.”

She also spoke about the impact that grades have on student mental health. She feels that although the university is making steps toward better mental health initiatives for students, it could always do more. In addition to improving the wait times at health and wellness centres, she believes that the university needs to deal with its problems of grade deflation and inflation. Thus, there must be systematic improvement to U of T’s system.

She has also seen the pressure on students to achieve the marks they need for future goals, such as admission to graduate schools, something that has dramatically affected their attitudes toward education. She describes their attitudes as apathetic toward learning, as all of their focus is on grades.

“I don’t think that should be the role that the university is playing,” she said. “It’s supposed to be about teaching and learning and developing good humans for society. By just putting so much focus on grades… it’s just creating a bad environment for learning.”

“How are you going to learn if you’re that stressed out?”

Another graduate student from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology who also wished to remain anonymous wrote to The Varsity about her time as a TA for first- and second-year courses. “For the first year [introductory] biology course, the TAs [received] specific instructions to maintain assignment averages around 70%,” she wrote. “This came from the TA coordinator.”

TAs are aware that they need to maintain a specific overall average, and this “can be quite restricting when assigning grades to individual students.” She found that her overall averages were “initially a lot lower than the specified average,” so she had to be more lenient when giving marks.

“I know students are aware of grade capping overall, but from personal experience most bell-curves are expected to raise averages rather [than] reduce them, so it might be a positive and sometimes stress-reducing factor,” she wrote.

However, she recognized that this is not the case with all TA and student experiences, and emphasized the impacts of grade capping on student mental health.

“There are so many external, non-academic pressures that undergrads deal with, and adding grade capping/inflation to the list is often unbearable,” she wrote. “There [are] a lot more students struggling with mental health than we are aware of, and it is important to consider how grade capping might affect their wellbeing.”

Priyanka Sharma, a former TA of an undergraduate criminology course, also wrote to The Varsity about her experience grading. She is a former graduate student at the Centre for Criminology & Sociolegal Studies at U of T, and she also completed her undergraduate degree at U of T.

“We were not asked to mark on a curve,” she wrote. “I would mark based off of a rubric given by the professor. However, my experience is an anomaly and the credit goes to the empathy and fairness of my professor.”

From her time as an undergraduate and graduate student at U of T, she got the impression that the “bell curve is an open secret.”

“There definitely seems to be a tacit recognition of an ‘informal but formalized’ grading curve for undergraduate classes at U of T — especially for classes with greater enrolment,” she wrote.

“Each TA has a different experience of how that plays out during marking,” she explained. “Most often, the TA is following [direction] from the professor, and it is most likely [that] the professor is following direction from the department or faculty. I think I was lucky and unique… not to have such directives imposed [on] my marking as [a] TA.”

When The Varsity reached out to Media Relations for comment and interviews with TA coordinators or faculty representatives, they directed us to the comments they made in our recent article about grade deflation at U of T.

The potential violation of students’ rights

Kate Brennan, member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3092 and Vice Chair of Unit 1, which represents almost 8,000 TAs and course instructors, spoke to The Varsity about the injustice against students that the tweet potentially illuminated.

She remarked that from her general experience as an educator, whenever she hears something about grades being too low or too high, it is potentially an institutional problem.

“That means that there was something poorly done with the instruction or with the design of the assessment,” she said. “That’s maybe what happened here.”

Brennan also stressed that the directives that were mentioned in the tweet would not have come from the TA, who would not be in a position to authorize any such action. Instead, they would have come from the course instructor, who bears overall responsibility for the course.

“The faculty member instructor holds disproportionate weight within the classroom and within the potential for that graduate student educator’s future career,” she said. “There are many, many, many Unit 1 members, myself included, who worry about facing retribution in some way if we upset a faculty member or, in trying to act fairly toward our students, come under the ire of a faculty member.”

Brennan expressed that, as an outside perspective on the matter, she believes that the incident relayed in the tweet may be a violation of U of T’s policy on marking.

“What should be happening now is an investigation into what really happened with that incident to make sure it’s not happening again, and to make sure that kind of problem isn’t allowed to systemically spread,” she said.

“In a classroom, students have rights and educators have rights,” she stressed. “And those are not at odds with each other; they actually complement each other. In addition to one’s rights, there also is accountability, and that extends both ways.”

Brennan detailed that one way educators are accountable to students is that they have to lay out all assignments and the marking scale in a syllabus at the beginning of the term. Under the most recent report, published in 2012 by the Governing Council about grading policies at U of T, the University Assessment and Grading Practices Policy, this grading criteria cannot be changed on a whim.

Rather, under Part B, Section 1.3, the report explains, “For both undergraduate and graduate courses, after the methods of evaluation have been made known, the instructor may not change them or their relative weight without the consent of a simple majority of students attending the class, provided the vote is announced no later than in the previous class.”

Brennan believes that in the instance the tweet highlights, students’ rights have been violated, since the form of assessment was changed.

“If there are ways in which students are not being treated fairly in this regard, then the university, I think, owes it to them and owes it to all students to make it fair,” she said. “Educators need to be accountable to students, too.”

Disclosure: Abdus Shuman is a TA in the Political Science department, as well as a Mobilization Officer for the Political Action Committee for CUPE.

Editor’s note (February 10, 3:31 pm): The Varsity mistakenly published an outdated version of this article that did not match the print version. The Varsity regrets the error.