February 18, 2018

Gymnastics Scores and Grade Inflation

The gymnastics scoring in this year’s Olympics has generated some controversy, as usual. Some of the controversy feel manufactured: NBC tried to create a hubbub over Nastia Liukin losing the uneven bars gold medal on the Nth tiebreaker; but top-level sporting events whose rules do not admit ties must sometimes decide contests by tiny margins.

A more interesting discussion relates to a change in the scoring system, moving from the old 0.0 to 10.0 scale, to a new scale that adds together an “A score” measuring the difficulty of the athlete’s moves and a “B score” measuring how well the moves were performed. The B score is on the old 0-10 scale, but the A score is on an open-ended scale with fixed scores for each constituent move and bonuses for continuously connecting a series of moves.

One consequence of the new system is that there is no predetermined maximum score. The old system had a maximum score, the legendary “perfect 10”, whose demise is mourned old-school gymnastics gurus like Bela Karolyi. But of course the perfect 10 wasn’t really perfect, at least not in the sense that a 10.0 performance was unsurpassable. No matter how flawless a gymnast’s performance, it is always possible, at least in principle, to do better, by performing just as flawlessly while adding one more flip or twist to one of the moves. The perfect 10 was in some sense a myth.

What killed the perfect 10, as Jordan Ellenberg explained in Slate, was a steady improvement in gymnastic performance that led to a kind of grade inflation in which the system lost its ability to reward innovators for doing the latest, greatest moves. If a very difficult routine, performed flawlessly, rates 10.0, how can you reward an astonishingly difficult routine, performed just as flawlessly? You have to change the scale somehow. The gymnastics authorities decided to remove the fixed 10.0 limit by creating an open-ended difficulty scale.

There’s an interesting analogy to the “grade inflation” debate in universities. Students’ grades and GPAs have increased slowly over time, and though this is not universally accepted, there is plausible evidence that today’s students are doing better work than past students did. (At the very least, today’s student bodies at top universities are drawn from a much larger pool of applicants than before.) If you want a 3.8 GPA to denote the same absolute level of performance that it denoted in the past, and if you also want to reward the unprecendented performance of today’s very best students, then you have to expand the scale at the top somehow.

But maybe the analogy from gymnastics scores to grades is imperfect. The only purpose of gymnastics scores is to compare athletes, to choose a winner. Grades have other purposes, such as motivating students to pay attention in class, or rewarding students for working hard. Not all of these purposes require consistency in grading over time, or even consistency within a single class. Which grading policy is best depends on which goals we have in mind.

One thing is clear: any discussion of gymnastics scoring or university grading will inevitably be colored by nostalgic attachment to the artists or students of the past.

Live Webcast: Future of News, May 14-15

We’re going to do a live webcast of our workshop on “The Future of News“, which will be held tomorrow and Thursday (May 14-15) in Princeton. Attending the workshop (free registration) gives you access to the speakers and other attendees over lunch and between sessions, but if that isn’t practical, the webcast is available.

Here are the links you need:

  • Live video streaming
  • Live chat facility for remote participants
  • To ask the speaker a question, email

Sessions are scheduled for 10:45-noon and 1:30-5:00 on Wed., May 14; and 9:30-12:30 and 1:30-3:15 on Thur., May 15.

May 14-15: Future of News workshop

We’re excited to announce a workshop on “The Future of News“, to be held May 14 and 15 in Princeton. It’s sponsored by the Center for InfoTech Policy at Princeton.

Confirmed speakers include Kevin Anderson, David Blei, Steve Borriss, Dan Gillmor, Matthew Hurst, Markus Prior, David Robinson, Clay Shirky, Paul Starr, and more to come.

The Internet—whose greatest promise is its ability to distribute and manipulate information—is transforming the news media. What’s on offer, how it gets made, and how end users relate to it are all in flux. New tools and services allow people to be better informed and more instantly up to date than ever before, opening the door to an enhanced public life. But the same factors that make these developments possible are also undermining the institutional rationale and economic viability of traditional news outlets, leaving profound uncertainty about how the possibilities will play out.

Our tentative topics for panels are:

  • Data mining, visualization, and interactivity: To what extent will new tools for visualizing and artfully presenting large data sets reduce the need for human intermediaries between facts and news consumers? How can news be presented via simulation and interactive tools? What new kinds of questions can professional journalists ask and answer using digital technologies?
  • Economics of news: How will technology-driven changes in advertising markets reshape the news media landscape? Can traditional, high-cost methods of newsgathering support themselves through other means? To what extent will action-guiding business intelligence and other “private journalism”, designed to create information asymmetries among news consumers, supplant or merge with globally accessible news?
  • The people formerly known as the audience: How effectively can users collectively create and filter the stream of news information? How much of journalism can or will be “devolved” from professionals to networks of amateurs? What new challenges do these collective modes of news production create? Could informal flows of information in online social networks challenge the idea of “news” as we know it?
  • The medium’s new message: What are the effects of changing news consumption on political behavior? What does a public life populated by social media “producers” look like? How will people cope with the new information glut?

Registration: Registration, which is free, carries two benefits: We’ll have a nametag waiting for you when you arrive, and — this is the important part — we’ll feed you lunch on both days. To register, please contact CITP’s program assistant, Laura Cummings-Abdo, at Include your name, affiliation and email address.