De/Grading

At a recent department meeting we voted to align our grading scales. That means we decided that to achieve a grade of A, a 93% average of all course work would be required. An 85% average would yield a B, 75% a C, and on down the line.

There was not much debate, but some preferences were raised. The intervals between grades should be even, the percent band of A should be narrower than B, C, and D. The previous range of individual requirements for an A ranged from 90% to 95%. Concerns were raised about scholarship money, lawsuits, and sorting students in to categories (that last one was me).

The lack of debate was not surprising to me, having spent the last few years reading in a sometimes-systematic manner about grades and grading. An extensive review of research published in 2016 (Brookhart et al.) described grades as essentially a fuzzy amalgam of effort and performance. Years of studies show a lack of coordination among teachers at all levels of formal education.

Our university policy is that professors can do what they want when deciding what percentage earns what grade. To me this indicates the somewhat arbitrary nature of the enterprise of grading. Ostensibly grades have two purposes: communicating success from teacher to student and helping institutions compare how students have done. But we all know the concept of an “easy A.” Few people need an explanation if you indicate that a physics major’s 4.0 was a greater accomplishment than a religion major’s 4.0. Surprisingly, GPA is the best statistic we have for predicting student success from high school to college.

As I get back in to another phase of more systematic reading in the topic of grading in higher education, I’ll be updating this blog post with additions in the form of summaries.

5/7 Tannock (No grades in higher education now!…2017) writes that grades run counter to the purpose of public universities. From the title one can surmise the radical nature of the article. It includes some history of anti-grading movements of the past and describes potential for areas of action now.

5/8 K. Webber, 2012, on the use of learner-centered assessments. This article examines results from a large-scale survey of degree-granting institutions in terms of how things changed from 1993-2004. Essentially more faculty used more student-centered assessments.

5/11 I’ve tried to find peer reviewed work on courses with no grades and strike out. I may have to check out some dissertations. But that seems crazy, the variability of quality in dissertations is immense! I thought the chapter I read from S. Blue’s book would have some references to empirical work but it had only more position pieces or more anecdotal research (like her research, which she claims is anthropological but is written like she never intended it to be systematic).

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