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Today we are going to discuss grade disclosure policy.

In a 1997 experiment, Cornell’s College of Arts and Science decided to post the median grades for courses on the Internet. According to an article on BusinessWeek.com, this was intended to “give context” to grades, in that students would see that if a certain class had a lower median grade, say a B-, an A in that course could be more meaningful. Cornell also had plans to publish the median course grades in student transcripts so potential employers could see the “big picture.”

This experiment had interesting results – results the opposite of what was expected. Instead of students choosing the course in which it would be more challenging to get a higher grade, the students chose the courses where professors tended to give out higher grades. The study that found these results also found that students with lower SAT scores were the ones choosing the “easier” courses. The experiment, in turn, has lead to grade inflation.

Perhaps because of these unintended results, Cornell has not yet followed through on putting the median grades on student transcripts. We, at Manhattan Review, believe that the fact that more students chose an easier course is due to a lack of their confidence in their ability to earn above-median grade in a challenging course and the negative ramification of a lower grade even if the median is even lower.

The grade situation at Cornell could reflect a larger ethical dilemma, one that has always been present at business school. Should students do whatever it takes to get to the top, even if it does not reflect their intellectual prowess or managerial talent? Is the “cunning” and quick decision making those students may use to get higher grades really relevant to their future business? Many professors would say no, ethical behavior is as important in an academic community as it is in the business world, but some students may say that their ability to get ahead will end up supporting them in the future.

Even if a less-capable person can get ahead here and there, it is highly unlikely the winning streak will continue without any hiccups. Unethical behavior or simply unwise decision will, sooner or later, have a consequence in a person’s personal or professional life.

Posted on March 6, 2008 by Manhattan Review

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