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The Meaning of Grades

I taught a first-year student seminar this term and finished assigning final grades. In examining the varying performance of the students on the weekly writing tasks and the final semester project, my thoughts turned to the recent faculty intellectual life report. Among a large set of good recommendations, the report once again raised the issue of grade compression. Three years ago, I wrote about this, but the issues remain.

When I first arrived at Georgetown in 2012, a set of faculty made sure I was aware of their concerns. One dean noted that large portions of each class were achieving the “Latin honors” of cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude status at graduation, diluting the honorific meaning of those appellations. He really didn’t know what to say when a parent was so proud of his child achieving a GPA of 3.0, when he himself knew that put the student in the lower percentiles of his classmates.

By that time, the McDonough School of Business had already decided to enforce some spread of grades across their classes. The result was the mean grade for business majors was lower than the mean grade of their peers in other Georgetown schools, and their graduates were disproportionately failing to achieve Latin honors.

So, we agreed to fix the cum laude and above designations, to have them based on percentages of the class, not fixed GPA’s. For example, cum laude is awarded to the top 25% of the graduating class within each school, a GPA that last year ranged from 3.66 to 3.81; summa cum laude, to the top 5% of the class, a GPA from 3.88 to 3.95, quite close to the maximum of 4.00. The GPA targets are updated each year to reflect changes in the percentiles.

The other changes we made were ones that increased transparency. First, on the internal transcripts that students see each term, we post both their individual grade and the mean grade in the course. This is to convey a B (3.0) in a course with a A- average (3.67) might have a different meaning than a B in a course with a C+ (2.33) average. Second, we asked the registrar to give to each department chair/unit head the distribution of grades in every class in their unit, in hopes that more transparency would generate faculty discussions about grading standards.

Over the subsequent years, it has become clear that faculty do not agree on the meaning of grades. Some hold strong to the meaning prescribed in the student bulletin: a D is a minimum passing grade; a C is adequate performance; a B is good performance; and an A is excellent performance. Further, they interpret these evaluations as relative to students in the current class. Such an interpretation implies that, unless there is rare perfect homogeneity in performance, there should be some variation in grades.

Other faculty assert that they specify a set of learning goals for their class, with a corresponding set of assessment tools. If all the students pass that threshold, they should all receive an A, in their opinion. (There does not seem to be much discussion of raising the learning goals in an attempt to stretch the students.)

There are many other related sentiments – a common one that small seminar classes often demonstrate superior performance among students, and hence, giving them all A’s makes sense; another, that students flock to courses known to given high grades; another, that we place our students at a disadvantage for graduate schools’ admission if we give lower mean grades than our peer institutions; another, that lower mean grades produce more harmful competition among students within classes; finally, faculty report that parents are increasingly vocal in supporting high grades for their child.

There are, however, equity problems in continuing grade compression. Departments that provide lower mean grades produce majors that disproportionately don’t achieve Latin honors. Some majors achieve lower grades in their own department than they do in other departments; other majors received much higher grades inside their own department than outside their department. When grading practices systematically vary across fields, the GPA yields little information about the student’s performance without knowing the courses taken.

As GPA’s continue their advance to their maximum of 4.0, they contain little discriminating information across students. Indeed, judgments about graduates will increasingly depend on other attributes.

6 thoughts on “The Meaning of Grades

  1. Further, a grade does little to tell you what a student has “learned.” A course title does not tell you what was covered, nevermind what was ascertained. The solution to this is not to re-compress grades, add mean grades to the transcript, apply a curve across campus … nor is it to address the symptom of rampant grade inflation. Georgetown should tackle head on the cause of all of this: the transcript. We must reinvent the system by which we track and report student performance. Georgetown must spend meaningful time investing in a record that reflects a students mastery of content, concepts, and the learning that happened both inside and outside of the classroom. That, and only that, will stop students from taking “easy” classes, faculty from handing out what some deem is too many ‘A’s, and even more important, will empower our students to leave the Hilltop with an understanding of the benefits of 400 years of Jesuit education and being located in the nation’s capital can provide.

  2. Interesting blog. There are two very important issues related to grade “control.” The first is teamwork implications and the other is hiring selection. I was a strong advocate for the “curve” at MSB. However, the unintended consequence has been a serious deterioration in team work and collaboration. Students begin to realize that the curve forces a limited number of “A”a and therefore some decide not to collaborate or help other students at the risk of increasing the “pool” of potential high grades. The other is that many companies do look at the GPA when hiring students. That might penalize MSB students not only relative to other schools at Georgetown but also reltive to other Universities. The undergraduate curriculum at MSB just put forward a proposal for addressing these issues.

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