Should We Replace our As, Bs, and Cs?

This article is the third of a three-part series. The first established the background of grade inflation at different schools, and the second analyzed grade inflation at Stanford. This final piece looks towards the future.

On October 7, 2014, after a decade of resistance, Princeton University voted to end its policy against grade inflation.  Since 1994, each department had been asked to give As to no more than 35% of the coursework submitted for that specific area of study.

This policy immediately generated backlash. Students complained that limiting the number of A grades, as Princeton did, creates a competitive or simply unappealing atmosphere for students who want their hard work to be rewarded with an A-grade, a traditional symbol of success. Higher marks also tend to make a student look more impressive to an internship, job, or graduate school than lower marks would. Grade inflation, however, actually produces the opposite effects for students–so many students are earning As nowadays that transcripts represent a countrywide phenomenon rather than individual merit.

Princeton’s approach is just one of the many different solutions schools across the country have proposed to combat grade inflation,. Some institutions and professors have experimented with a dual-track system, in which students have two grades on their transcript for every class– one that represents the value of their work, and another that represents the average GPA of the class. Others have seriously considered giving evaluative narratives, comments in which a teacher describes each student’s’ strengths and weaknesses, rather than grades.

One effort against grade-inflation resulted in the dual-track system. Cornell University, for example, hoped to use the dual-track system to show both the individual student’s grade and the median grade of the class to give context to an individual student’s grade so that a B in a course with a B- median was as equally impressive as A in a class with an A- median. This dual-track system obviously has flaws; after Cornell published each class’ median grade online, students took more classes that had a high median grade. A simple solution to this problem would be to put the median grades only on student transcripts, not the public Internet. This approach could reduce grade inflation while giving students an accurate idea of their performance. A dual-track approach may also help schools who are not experiencing grade inflation, like Purdue University. Purdue’s average GPA has remained around 2.8 for over 30 years; a transcript that shows the median grade of a class could highlight a Purdue student’s merit, even though his GPA may seem too low, allowing him access to grad schools and work opportunities.

Over the past few years, the seemingly radical idea that professors not give grades at all has gained popularity as well. Cathy Davidson, John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Ruth F. Devarney Professor of English at Duke University, debuted a class in 2010 in which students graded each other. In this seminar, called “Your Brain on the Internet”, she announced the standards of the class to her students. They would have to do all of the work and attend every class to earn an A; missing class and assignments would lead to lower grades. However, students also had to create the rubric for grading assignments and determine whether their fellow peers were meeting those standards whenever they led the class.

Davidson, post-experiment, noted the benefits of this type of grading system. She read every piece of writing and wrote comments, and though she did not assign grades, she said that the writing in the seminar was better than the norm. “The writing wasn’t using the kind of language you normally see in research papers, with words you only use in research papers,” she said. “There was less jargon. I didn’t see the thesaurus-itis that I usually see.” Further, she said that students took more risks, pushed each other, and worked hard on their assignments to avoid, not a bad grade, but a message from their fellow students that their assignment did not meet the standards of the class and needed to be redone.  “I think students were going out on a limb more and being creative and not just thinking about ‘What does the teacher want?’” she concluded.

The annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities in 2009 addressed the concern that giving grades squelches intellectual curiosity and risk-taking; they hypothesized that narrative evaluations, like the ones Davidson did for her student’s assignments, would . This new system, however, would require training for college professors and institutions willing to consider a student’s academic excellence (rather than GPA), as well as a new mindset for students, parents, and professors alike.

This new mindset may not be so difficult to achieve. As grade inflation decreases grades’ status as an indicator of past and future successes, the appeal of giving evaluative narratives- or no grades at all- seems to rise. A grade-less approach may seem radical in this day and age, but may soon be reality–one that is able to curb grade inflation, encourage intellectual curiosity and risk-taking, and measure students’ success without the help of an A, B, or C.

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