Faculty debate adding more info to transcripts due to grade inflation

A transcript would note the number of a students in a class that received the listed grade.

by Jill Jensen

As the number of A grades awarded increases nationwide, University of Minnesota faculty are thinking of ways to assign meaning to a grade almost half of all students in a class receive.

To counteract grade inflation, a chemistry professor is suggesting a way to put those grades in context — by putting how many other students received that grade on students’ transcripts.

In order to give contextual data surrounding the grade on a student’s transcript, Chris Cramer, chemistry professor, proposed including the percentage of students in that class that received the same grade.

The policy is being explored more in-depth by a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Educational Policy, which researches academic policy changes.

About half of students taking 3000 level courses receive A grades in the College of Liberal Arts, the College of Education and Human Development, the College of Design and the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, according to fall 2011 grading data from the Senate Committee on Educational Policy.

Meanwhile, A grades received at that level in the Carlson School of Management, College of Biological Sciences and College of Science and Engineering hover at slightly less than a third of students.

For Zach Einck, a civil engineering sophomore, opting to show grades in context on his transcript would be beneficial. Students in CSE tend to get fewer A grades compared to other colleges.

“It’d be nice to show that even though I didn’t get a great grade, I still did about as well as everyone else did,” Einck said.

Indiana University-Bloomington implemented an option for students to include their grade in context on their transcripts in the late ’90s. It could list statistics like the number of grades at each level and how many majors took that class, said Mark McConahay, the school’s registrar.

In 2004 that transcript option was taken away because of development in the student records system, but students are still given contextual stats on their grades online and the university maintains an online database showing how a professor awarded grades in the past — which is “highly popular” for registration, McConahay said.

Cramer said the amount of grade compression toward the top of the spectrum in higher education will soon be a “crisis” because it will transform into a pass/fail system with grades: Either a student receives an ‘A’, or he or she fails the course.

According to University of Minnesota policy, an A grade “represents achievement that is outstanding relative to the level necessary to meet course requirements,” while a C grade represents that a student “meets the course requirements in every respect.”

He said it may be harder to grade in colleges like CLA because it’s not necessarily a quantitative measurement like in math and science.

Associate professor in classical and near eastern studies Eva von Dassow said grade inflation is an increasing problem in higher education.

“The system that focuses on grades as measures of value or quality invites its participants to view the grade as the goal and not learning or achieving skills or knowledge or understanding,” she said.

There is a pressure on faculty to ramp up grades because students take a consumerist approach to education, von Dassow said, where the grade is the product, and faculty are expected to deliver it.

“We’re reduced to grade dispensers, so in order to keep our customers happy, we’re all under pressure to raise their grade.”

She said the grade system should be scrapped, as it is detrimental to both learning and teaching. But it would be hard to do so at a large university.

Cramer said there is a “self-esteem” culture where students feel their grade should reflect their effort, not what they actually did. Students should understand that a C grade is not “a brand for life.”

But Peggy Root, professor and assistant dean of education in the College of Veterinary Medicine, said via email that this proposal would be a “profound disservice” to graduate students, who normally are graded on “criterion-referenced grading.”

She said grades are commonly generated one of two ways: on a curve — “norm referenced grading,” which compares students against one another — or on criterion, which bases a student’s grade off a standard of achievement, theoretically allowing all high-achieving students to receive a high grade.

“If it is not clear on that transcript which type of grading is being used, one might assume that any class where it says a high percentage of students got an A [grade] is an “easy” class rather than assuming it is a class with criterion-referenced grading and high-achieving students,” Root said.

Cramer said transcripts are “pretty much useless” for graduate school admissions.

“They don’t give you much insight into student performance. If an average GPA is 3.5, everybody seems to be doing pretty well,” he said.

The Senate Committee on Educational Policy appointed a subcommittee to delve deeper into the issue and has not reached a decision as a body.

They will come back next academic year with a determination of whether the University should move in that direction, said SCED chair Thomas Brothen. He said the proposal will then probably work its way through two faculty committees to the University Senate, where, if approved, administrators will decide how to handle it.

Cramer said the movement toward grade compression is partly due to faculty compassion for students, laziness to deal with unhappy students with lower scores and unwillingness to award lower scores, which could affect their student evaluations. He said this is a conflict of interest, because evaluations are used in determining promotions.

Cramer said every university believes it has the top students, but not everyone is performing at an A-grade level. A rigor needs to be established that “makes the higher grades mean something.”

But Brothen, who’s also a psychology professor, said it’s possible that better students are attending the University, not that grade inflation exists.

He said he uses criterion-reference grading and awards A grades to students who get a certain percentage in his course.

“I have no problem whatsoever giving everybody A [grades] if everybody learns what I want them to learn,” Brothen said.

This could be perceived as a “snap course,” or an easy class, with the current proposal, he said. But he said he could argue that it’s an effective course where students learn the material.

Von Dassow said awarding C grades as acceptable grades “apparently is abnormal.” She said she tries to take the University grading policy seriously.

She said putting grades in context on transcripts would benefit those students whose teachers were hard graders.

“It would allow students who have really achieved at a high level to stand out.”