A Stab at Deflating Grades

Faculty at U. of North Carolina-Chapel Hill backs plan to put students' (and professors') grades in context.
April 19, 2011

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is the latest institution to join the battle against grade inflation.

On Friday, the university's faculty council, by a vote of 21-13, approved a policy that, beginning in fall 2012, will place "contextual" information about students' grades on their transcripts and give individual faculty members reports that compare the grades they award to those given by their peers. While the measure did not go as far as its sponsor would have preferred -- and not nearly as far as places like Princeton University have gone, in terms of purposefully trying to limit the number of high grades faculty members award -- the policy makes UNC one of a relatively small number of selective universities that have taken on the issue.

"This is an acknowledgment that UNC has a problem with its grading, and many universities aren't even making that acknowledgment," said Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke University professor who has made fighting grade inflation a personal calling.

Friday's decision by the Faculty Council followed the unanimous approval in April 2010 of a resolution that UNC report significantly more information about students' grades and take other steps to "ensure the validity, accuracy, and fairness of grading and grade comparisons" at the university. The legislation on which the council voted Friday was designed merely to flesh out the earlier resolution with an actual set of policies and practices -- yet it faced much more opposition (philosophical more than substantive) than did the original measure, said its sponsor, Andrew Perrin, an associate professor of sociology. "All of the discussion was still, 'Is this the right direction for us to be going?' "

An editorial in the student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, two months ago answered that question with an emphatic No. Under the headline "Making the grade: If grading practices are a problem, punish 
the professors, not the students," the op-ed argued that "[i]f UNC wants to counter grade inflation, it must hold professors accountable for their teaching practices and standards, not undermine their students."

The editorial, echoing concerns raised by students at Princeton and institutions such as Cornell University and Dartmouth College that have also sought to rein in grade inflation, argues that the UNC policy would hurt students if the university is "the only school fighting grade inflation with contextual grade reporting.... If UNC were to implement contextual grade reporting without many other schools joining the action, it could potentially undermine UNC students’ achievements compared to other schools."

The measure approved Friday has two main strands, one focused on the grades that students receive and the other on the professors who award those grades.

Under the policy, which takes effect for students who begin at the university in fall 2012, each student's transcript will note the median grade for all students in every course section the student takes, and the percentile range in which the student's grade falls among his or her peers in that section.

The student's transcript (as seen in a sample below) will also contain a "schedule point average," which is designed to calculate what the average UNC student's grade point average would have been if he or she had taken the courses of the student in question. When compared to the student's actual grade point average, this average is meant to be the rough equivalent of a "strength of schedule" measure for a sports team, showing how difficult the student's chosen schedule is and making it more possible "to compare students across departments and instructors," said Perrin.

The other data called for by the UNC legislation are designed to spotlight individual faculty members' grading practices. Beginning in fall 2012, each faculty member who teaches undergraduates will receive a report showing the mean grade issued for his or her course sections, as well as the mean grades for other sections of the same course and other courses in his or her "department, division, school, and university." The report will also include the frequency with which the instructor offers different letter grades, and historical trends.

The goal of the legislation, said Perrin, is to draw professors' attention to their own grading practices, so they ask questions like "How does my grading fit with the practices of colleagues?" and "Does this grading pattern really represent what I thought the achievement of my students was?"

"My hope is that the transparency may work," Perrin added, "because a good number of faculty will look at these reports and say, 'That doesn't really reflect how my students are performing.' "

Perrin and other supporters of the new policy challenged the assertion that it penalizes students to note "that some are performing better than others.... It's more important that the university get the grades right than that students get grades that make them feel good," he said.

While expressing hope that the changes will have an impact on faculty practices, Perrin said he wished the UNC faculty had been willing to go further. The newly adopted policy will do nothing to end the "basic unfairness" that exists now, with university honors lists and other awards determined by grade point averages that vary widely by department, by program, and by school. Using an adjusted average like the "schedule point average" would be fairer, he said.

Rojstaczer, the grade inflation expert, said that UNC faculty members deserve credit for confronting the problem -- but that they should have modest expectations. Other campuses that have merely published information about grades with the hope of changing behavior -- like Indiana University -- have seen no meaningful decline in student grades, he said. "I can't think of a single institution where [the publication of] contextual information has caused a reduction in the number of As. So will it have a real impact on grades? I wouldn't bet on it."

But "Step 1 in any sort of problem solving is identifying the problem," he added, "and they've done that. That should be lauded, and not minimized."


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