Last Monday, University faculty members voted to revoke the policy of grade deflation implemented in 2004 and to move towards a grading system based not on numerical targets, but on standards determined by each individual department. As administrators and individual departments work to develop new guidelines for monitoring the general distribution of grades, the University community has an opportunity to reflect upon the priorities of its grading practices and to address the culture that surrounds grades on campus. In speaking to Monday’s faculty meeting, Dean of the College Valerie Smith recognized that “meaningful [grading] standards should be course- and discipline-specific.” In order for grades to be meaningful in the way that Dean Smith envisions, students should be able to privately view the breakdown of grades in courses they have completed and, additionally, the University should publish the general distribution of grades by course level (e.g., 200-level, 300-level) in each department.
The ability for students to contextualize grades more meaningfully within their particular courses would greatly contribute to the emphasis on feedback that the University is working towards. Expectations can, and often do, fluctuate dramatically from course to course (and sometimes even from precept to precept) as a result of factors such as the preferences of particular instructors and the curve established by enrolled students. These inevitable inconsistencies make it imprudent to assess grades in a vacuum or to mistake them for universal indicators of aptitude. Students often wonder how their work compares to the average and what kind of performance level their grade really indicates. The University’s silence on these questions — a failure to supply the crucial other half of the story — leads students to view grades as rigid and inaccurate tools for judging students against one another rather than catalysts for intellectual growth. To demystify grades, the University must be more open about them.
This openness must extend, at least to some degree, beyond the immediate University community. By publishing the general distribution of grades by course level in each department (a relatively abstract and yet much-needed measurement), the University would ensure greater levels of fairness in outside assessments of students’ performances, whether for prizes, internships, fellowships, graduate school admissions or jobs. While the University has historically included a letter explaining the grade deflation policy with each official transcript, releasing grade distributions would be more meaningful in the context of the department-dictated standards. Further, the types of courses which a student seeks out require just as much consideration as the student’s grades themselves. Many students suffer or benefit unduly from misleading stereotypes about the relative difficulties of departments and course levels, and providing rough data on such matters would enable more responsible readings of these students’ grades. The ability for students to point to the difficulty of their courses would also encourage them to challenge themselves in their studies: As the committee charged with reviewing grade deflation observed, the concern that grades will be misunderstood and viewed out of context has a stifling effect on students’ academic development. Students are frequently unwilling to take classes which they view as disproportionately challenging, regardless of their interest.
In lieu of standardizing grades across courses and disciplines, the University should become more vocal and forthcoming about the discrepancies in evaluations of student work. What is needed most of all is context, from which students can come to understand the real meaning of their grades — and learn from them.
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