Statement on Hansen’s Claims about Grading at UW-Madison

July 25, 2014 | Blog, News

When encountering a phrase like “representational equity” bothers a professor as much as it seems to have bothered my colleague W. Lee Hansen when he says he came across it in a UW-Madison planning document (even though, fact check, it’s not in that document) a natural next step would be for the scholar to seek further explanation.  “What does the phrase mean?” he might ask.  Since the passage he was examining focused on the practice of grading, he might also wonder, “How does one pursue a goal of representative equity?”

These are reasonable questions and fortunately they have reasonable answers in the source documents from which the phrase originated. Unfortunately, Professor Hansen skipped his homework in favor of leaping to conclusions. The conclusion he reached, according to his recent article condemning UW-Madison, is that its professors are being urged to use quotas based on race/ethnicity when assigning grades to students.

There is no factual basis to this claim—it is not what is meant by “representational equity” and it is not happening at Madison.  The phrase comes from the work of Dr. Estela Bensimon and her colleagues at the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California and it has nothing whatsoever to do with quotas.  In fact, Dr. Bensimon is suggesting that colleges and universities examine the distribution of grades among their students in order to detect achievement gaps that could be related to inequitable practices.  She is advocating for the exact opposite of what Hanson claims—she wants schools to examine their data in order to ensure that race/ethnicity is not biasing grading.

This is an important activity that UW-Madison needs to undertake in order to understand why our achievement gaps are large and persistent despite our many resources and efforts to the contrary. It is important that we sift and winnow our way through the problem to find solutions, not shirk from it.  On this sort of thing, even Ann Althouse and I agree.   I’m therefore very disappointed that an empiricist such as Professor Hansen would attack and misrepresent a campus effort to do just that.



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