This is the time that instructors throughout the campus submit their grades to the registrar for fall classes.
When I joined Georgetown, I learned that the faculty on the main campus had a resolution for a reform of grading practices on campus, in order to address a nationwide issue of grade inflation, or more properly “grade compression.” Later that year, the dean of the College, in his state of the College meeting, noted that very large proportions of College students were graduating with Latin honors (cum laude, magna cum laude, summa cum laude) because of the inflation of grade point averages (GPA’s).
Awhile ago I was on the Georgetown bus going to the Rosslyn Metro, impolitely overhearing a conversation between two students prior to the deadline on registration for courses: “So you’re missing one course…I’m telling you, you have to take Professor X’s class; you’re guaranteed an ‘A.'” Other student says, “What’s the course about?” Response: “Why do you care?” Students clearly feel the pressure to achieve high grades.
Further, some faculty believe (and there is evidence to support this) that high average grades lead to positive teaching evaluations, a key criterion in their own merit review and promotion decisions. Faculty feel the pressure to give high grades.
Some students switch majors from fields where they’re not getting high grades to other fields where they receive higher grades. If this reflected the students finding their true authentic identities as the basis of the higher grades, then there’s no apparent problem. If, on the other hand, the higher grades merely reflect different grading standards in the two fields, there may be a serious problem. Indeed, why should there be higher average grades in one field versus another, other things being equal?
There are some arguments forwarded justifying high average grades:
• Georgetown students are really intelligent and perform on average at very high levels (and they’re better than they used to be); they all deserve high grades
• Georgetown students are accustomed to excelling academically; giving low grades discourages them and reduces their motivation
• As directors of the assessment process of a class, why shouldn’t faculty be free to give all students high grades?
• Helping Georgetown students achieve high GPA’s helps them get into good graduate and professional schools.
• Students (or their families) are paying high tuitions and deserve high grades because of their large investment
We can all debate these alternative assertions, but I’ve heard all of them.
Since I’ve arrived at Georgetown, we have tried to improve the situation in two ways. First, we acted to bring some transparency to grading practices — on the fall, 2013, unofficial transcripts each student will see the grade they earned in a class, as well as the mean grade in the class. This will allow a more informed evaluative judgment of the relative performance in the class. A “B” (3.0) in a class denotes different relative performance if the mean grade is a 3.5 versus a 2.5.
Second, we altered the criterion for cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude status for the entering class (Class of 2017). Starting with that class, these designations will be based on percentiles of seniors’ GPA distribution, not a fixed GPA value. Starting in 2017, about 5 percent of the graduating class will receive summa cum laude designations, with successively large percentages for the other two designations.
But more active intervention is possible. Some years ago, Princeton began to limit grade compression by specifying a constrained distribution of grades for each class. Similarly, at least one school at Georgetown has unilaterally mandated grade guidelines, limiting the percentage of students who earn an “A,” “B,” “C,” etc. This has the effect of lowering the mean GPA of students, but provides students clear information about their relative performance in the course.
Grades were instituted both to identify unsatisfactory performance and to rate relative performance. A student earning below a “D,” receives no academic credit for the course. The bulletin labels a “B” as “good” and a “C” as “adequate.” It’s obvious that the relative evaluative component of grades is threatened if almost all students get A’s. Indeed, if all students do perform at the uniformly high level, does it imply that the level of the material being presented is too simple for the students?
It seems that any grading policy will require some answers:
1. Should the mean grades of courses in different fields be different from one another?
2. Should different faculty teaching similar courses assign different grade distributions?
3. How can we help students reduce their fixation on grades?
4. How do we communicate our grading standards to postgraduate programs?
5. How can merit and promotion reviews move beyond student evaluations to deeper assessment of teaching, relieving faculty pressure to assign high grades?
What are your answers to these questions?