Grading on a Curve

A college is seeing higher student success levels based on a series of reforms, but should any institution evaluate faculty members in part on the proportion of C grades and above they award?

February 18, 2016

Trident Technical College in Charleston, S.C., is touting the increased student success it’s seen since adopting seven-week terms two and a half years ago -- so much so that other community colleges are now expressing interest in that schedule. But some faculty members are concerned that the story has a darker side that isn’t being told: that instructors’ annual performance evaluations are now tied to student success, specifically the percentage of grades of C or above awarded, and that that can only lead to grade inflation at an institution with no tenure. The college denies that grade inflation is a factor in its gains, however, and says it’s got the data to prove it.

“We’re holding everybody at the college accountable, including me,” said Mary Thornley, Trident’s longtime president. “We’re not telling anybody they need to have [one particular] student success rate … but faculty hold students accountable and we want to hold them accountable.”

Trident’s attempts at reform date back to 2007, when it joined Achieving the Dream, which is supported by the Lumina Foundation. The completion initiative asks participating institutions to collect, analyze and act on course-level student success data, and Trident’s trend line was, in Thornley’s words, “not a good look.” In 1991, when she became president, the percentage of students who passed their courses with a grade of A, B or C was about 75 percent. But it declined steadily for over a decade, hovering at under 65 percent since 2001. The slide coincided with a switch to a semester schedule from a quarterly one in the 1990s.

The college researched ways to improve that rate and analyzed its own institutional-level data for possible solutions. What it found was that all subgroups of students seemed to perform better in the college's shorter-term course offerings, such as those in automotive technology and some in nursing. The finding is supported by some research on adult learners, suggesting that they learn better when focusing on fewer courses at a time. It also seemed to explain the college’s long-term decline in student success since switching to a semester schedule.

In 2014, the college moved entirely from a 14-week semester to two seven-week terms in the fall and spring, with a week in between. So a full course load now equals two courses in the first seven-week term and three in the second condensed term, for example, instead of five courses over 14 weeks. Now in its third year of condensed terms, the college is noting increased student success across campus. For the first time in 20 years, the college’s course success rate is above 75 percent. Developmental studies’ success rate jumped from 51 percent to 70 percent between fall 2011 and fall 2014, for example. Science and math saw 12-point jump, to 66 percent, and humanities and social sciences’ success rate grew from 60 percent in 2011 to 74 percent in 2014.

More to the Story

The college is sharing this success in newsletters and in local newspapers, drawing interest from other community colleges, according to faculty accounts. But something crucial is being left out of the narrative, they say: that at the same time the college moved to seven-week terms, it also adopted a new annual performance evaluation that links 10 percent of a faculty member’s rating to his or her student success rate. While no one interviewed for this article said they’d artificially inflated grades to earn a high rating, they said the potential for grade inflation exists because no one at Trident has tenure.

“There’s been a lot of talk since we went into a compression schedule among instructors about dummying down their classes,” said one professor in the humanities and social sciences division who did not want to be named, citing concerns about job security. “It appears there are people who can’t cover as much material as they used to, and then of course, when your yearly evaluation is tied to student success and it used to not be at all, there will certainly be those who feel pressured.”

Either due to concerns about time, or the student success rate, or both, more instructors have moved to take-home or online exams, where it’s harder to control for cheating, some professors said. Other professors have cut assignments from their syllabuses. Some said foreign language teachers feel particularly pressured, since it’s harder to absorb a foreign language than many other topics over just seven weeks. Professors also noted that the move to shorter terms at least coincided with a drop in enrollment, and they're hearing from some students who have jobs that the new schedule isn't as convenient.

Not all professors say they feel pressured under the schedule, however. Another instructor in the division who did not want to be named, for similar reasons, said most of his colleagues weren’t nervous about losing their jobs if they didn’t pass enough students. But they had had discussions about making grading across their discipline more uniform, which was probably a good thing, he said.

There appears to be some confusion among professors about exactly how the new performance evaluation policy works -- and Thornley said it’s admittedly complicated. Professors must earn an “exceptional” or “satisfactory” rating to earn their 10 percentage points tied to student success, and there are 16 different ways to earn each. Ways to earn a top rating include 82 percent of students passing with a C or better (not factoring in withdrawals), or meeting the department average. Routes to a satisfactory rating include 76 percent of students passing with a C or falling within five percentage points of the departmental average. That’s over anywhere from a semester to a three-year average, and instructors may consider other quantified departmental measures of student learning where available.

Thornley rejected all claims that the new metric led to grade inflation, saying that about half the college’s courses are taught by adjuncts, whose evaluations have no link to student performance, and who are seeing the same jumps in student success rates. And of 335 faculty members, just six have failed to earn an E or S rating under the new evaluation system, she said. (At the same time, many adjuncts have historically said they always feel pressure to inflate grades, since student evaluations of teaching bear significantly on their chances at reappointment -- and students tend to like professors who grade higher.)

She also rejected additional faculty claims that lower enrollment accounted for the student success rate, saying while enrollment has decreased 10 percent since 2011, that is still lower than both state and national average enrollment declines of about 13 percent each, she said.

“It is easier to move a cemetery than move a college, and we knew that when we went into this -- we knew it would not be universally popular,” Thornley said, noting that some professors don’t like condensed terms because the shift has required a lot of work on everyone’s part. “But this is an extremely well thought out, well-laid project, and we’ve been transparent about it both internally and externally.”

But some faculty members disagree, asking why the new performance metric hasn’t been a bigger part of the college's message about its success. 

The American Association of University Professors doesn’t have an explicit policy against linking performance evaluations to student success, but affirms instructors’ right to assign grades. The association’s statement on that right said that its broader Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities places primary responsibility with the faculty “for such fundamental areas as curriculum [and] subject matter and methods of instruction.” So the faculty member offering a course should be “responsible for the evaluation of student course work and, under normal circumstances, is the sole judge of the grades received by the students in that course,” AAUP says.

That position was reaffirmed by in a separate, decade-old report on a censured administration at Benedict College, also in South Carolina. AAUP found that the college’s president had imposed a Success Equals Effort policy requiring faculty members to award grades based not only on performance but also effort -- showing up for class, handing in assignments and participating in study sessions. Two professors who refused to adopt the policy in their classrooms were fired for insubordination, landing the institution on AAUP’s censure list.

The Benedict report concludes with a citation from the AAUP’s Statement on Professional Ethics calling upon professors “to ensure that their evaluations of students reflect each student’s true merit.”


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