Wisconsin won’t admit it, but its new egalitarian policy leads to grading quotas

December 17, 2014
The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy

In July, I wrote about the pressure that University of Wisconsin officials have been exerting on the faculty for greater “equity” on campus.

My “Madness in Madison” essay pointed out that university administrators are so caught up in egalitarian groupthink that they want to reduce or eliminate differences in students’ choice of majors and in the distribution of grades.

That essay elicited a defensive reaction from the university. Chief Diversity Officer Patrick Sims stated in a July 22, 2014 press release that UW’s diversity plan does not entail “a quota system for apportioning grades by race.”

Bringing up quotas, however, is a distraction from the plan’s impact—a red herring.

UW-Madison’s new diversity plan, “A Framework for Diversity and Inclusive Excellence,” calls for the elimination of the grade gap, but in a veiled way that never uses the word “quota.” Unfortunately, the result will hardly be any different than if it did.

A bit of history will set the stage.

UW-Madison has been moving toward egalitarian grading since 2008 when the university began reporting to departments and instructors the rates of D, F, and drop grades by gender, first-generation college status, and targeted minority status.

That sent a message to the faculty that they’d better pay close attention to low grades for students in certain groups.

The 2009 UW System’s “Inclusive Excellence Framework” insisted upon “proportional participation of historically underrepresented racial-ethnic groups at all levels of an institution . . . and in the distribution of grades.”

In plain English, this meant that the university was determined to have equal grades for all groups.

In fall 2009, the College of Letters and Science pushed further with a study of grading practices in five introductory courses. Its title was revealing: “Grade Gap/Future Gap: Addressing Racial Disparities in L&S [Letters & Science] Introductory Courses.” Departments were instructed to implement strategic action plans to “eliminate racial grade gaps by 2014.”

This targeted five introductory courses: Chemistry 103, Communication Arts 100, English 100, Mathematics 112, and Psychology 202.

Putting an even sharper point on the administration’s desires, the report explained, “. . . these courses have something in common, sharp disparities in grade outcomes by race. In all courses targeted minority students achieve lower grades than non-targeted students at similar preparation levels. In each course, targeted minority students receive more of the low grades and fewer of the high grades.”

No, that doesn’t explicitly demand grade quotas, but the unsubtle point can’t be missed.

Furthermore, to ensure “steady annual improvements,” the dean would create incentives and an accountability system.

The people who teach those introductory courses, mostly teaching assistants and instructional academic staff, are quite vulnerable to administrative pressure because they are on limited-term contracts. They are apt to decide that giving each individual the grade he or she earned is less important than assigning grades so that there is little or no gap between groups.

Rather than adjusting grades, however, the university suggests that faculty members who teach those courses should “discover pedagogical strategies that reach targeted and non-targeted students with equal effectiveness” to reduce the achievement gap.

Resorting to faddish education-speak, the university suggests that the faculty use “proactive multicultural competence” to make their teaching more effective for the targeted students.

Efforts to eliminate the grade gap are being intensified under UW-Madison’s “Framework for Diversity and Inclusive Excellence” plan. Its Recommendation 1.5 calls for a “reduction in the achievement gap.”

Madison is already responding to that recommendation. The university’s Delta Academic Excellence Initiative worked with faculty and staff at its 2014 Fall Retreat to promote “impactful instructional practices” in key courses where there are “adverse academic outcomes,” meaning the results are unequal by racial group. The Initiative’s objective is the elimination racial grade gaps in those courses.

The “achievement gap” is simply another name for the inability of targeted minority students to earn good enough grades in their introductory courses that they will be able to enroll in “high demand majors” such as STEM majors and computer science.

Those ideas about “pedagogical strategies” may sound nice, but they’re utopian. Professors teaching those introductory courses (or any others) can’t wave a magic wand to come up with a teaching method that enables the “targeted” students in, say, chemistry, to learn the subject just as well as the non-targeted students. There simply isn’t some different, more effective way of teaching chemistry to minority students than teaching it to white and Asian students.

Faculty members might attempt or at least say they’ve attempted to discover and use methods that make all student groups learn the material equally well. In the end, however, they will do the safe thing and adjust grades so that the gap disappears. That, after all, is the one thing the university can measure.

So, while UW doesn’t have a de facto grade quota policy, its directives to faculty members will lead to results hardly different from that.

What, exactly, is the problem the university sees in grade gaps? UW asserts that they “suppress the horizons of students” and diminish the school’s reputation. No evidence is advanced in support of those claims, however.

I would argue to the contrary that many students will suffer academically if they receive the artificial boost of higher grades than they actually earned just because they happen to be in a “targeted group.” Students need accurate feedback on how they’re doing, not inflated grades that boost their egos.

I would also argue that the university’s reputation will be diminished by these efforts at equalizing grades between groups. Pressures to eliminate grading gaps will lead to the “dumbing down” of courses and, even more likely, grade inflation for targeted minority students. This pretend solution won’t make the university better for anyone.

UW-Madison is going through all these contortions because the administration can’t or won’t acknowledge a simple fact: some groups of admitted students are significantly less well prepared for college work.

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