In a striking example of unintended consequences, a move by Cornell University to give context to student grades by publicly posting median grades for courses has resulted in exactly the opposite student behavior than anticipated.
Cornell’s College of Arts & Sciences originally set up a web site in 1997 where median grades were posted, with the intention of also printing median class grades alongside the grade the student actually received in the course on his or her permanent transcript.
Administrators thought students would use the information on the web site to seek out classes with lower median grades–because, they reasoned, an A in a class that has a median grade of B-minus would be more meaningful than say, an A in a course where the median was A-plus.
However, when Cornell researchers studied about 800,000 course grades issued at Cornell from 1990 to 2004, they found that most students visited the site to shop for classes where the median grade was higher. Plus, professors who tended to give out higher grades were more popular. Students with lower SAT scores were the most likely to seek out courses with higher median grades.