August 30, 2014

At UNC-Chapel Hill, the truth about grades

Starting this fall, transcripts for graduates of UNC-Chapel Hill with include context about average grades awarded in each class. The practice is a response to the nationally acknowledged problem of grade inflation.

Tar Heels in search of the easy A, beware. Starting this fall, UNC-Chapel Hill transcripts will provide a little truth in grading.

From now on, transcripts for university graduates will contain a healthy dose of context.

Next to a student’s grade, the record will include the median grade of classmates, the percentile range and the number of students in the class section. Another new measure, alongside the grade point average, is the schedule point average. A snapshot average grade for a student’s mix of courses, the SPA is akin to a sports team’s strength of schedule.

The nuanced transcripts will provide more information for graduate schools and employers, who should be better able to judge the difference between good and excellent performance. An A- in psychology might not look so swell when the average grade in the class is an A. On the other hand, an A- in physics looks downright impressive if the class average is a C+.

The new contextual transcript is the university’s response to grade inflation – the long-term trend of rising grades that began in the 1960s and accelerated in the 1980s.

Grade inflation has been well documented nationally, most recently in a 2012 study published in Teachers College Record, an academic journal at Columbia University. Researchers collected grade data for 135 U.S. colleges and universities, representing 1.5 million students. They found that A’s are now the most commonly awarded grade – 43 percent of all grades. Failure is almost unheard of, with D’s and F’s making up less than 10 percent of all college grades.

The study found that grade inflation has been most pronounced at elite private universities, trailed by public flagship campuses and then less selective schools. Grading tends to be higher in humanities courses, followed by social sciences. The lowest grades tend to occur in the science, math and engineering disciplines.

Andrew Perrin, a sociology professor at UNC-CH, said the system provides a perverse incentive for students to seek courses not because of intellectual interests or career aspirations, but to pad their GPAs. Popular sites such as Rate My Professors include a measure of “easiness” for each faculty member.

Anything less than an A is unacceptable for some students.

“Elite universities, both elite state universities like ours or elite private universities, face a particular challenge, which is that everybody here is used to being the best,” Perrin said. “And in many cases, they’re used to complaining if they’re not the best.”

Challenge the students

Perrin has long been involved in UNC-CH’s debate about grade inflation and helped push for the transcript policy.

While some argue that students today are smarter than they used to be, national surveys show that college students spend fewer hours studying and pursuing academics.

“I think our responsibility is to push them as far as they can be pushed,” Perrin said. “If they’re that much better, then we ought to be raising the bar, not saying, ‘Well, they’re so much better than they were in 1970, so let’s give them all A’s.’ ”

Student views are mixed on the new transcripts. In interviews last week, most were unaware of the change.

“If you graduate from here and aren’t going to graduate school, who’s going to see your transcript?” asked Sean Peterson, a sophomore from Hebron, CT.

Alex Kacvinsky, a sophomore pre-med student from Cary, approves of the new transcripts. Last semester, he made a B+ in a biology class, which would look even better next to the class average, which was a C-.

“I personally would like it if my transcript had more context,” Kacvinsky said.

But Will Weidman, a senior from Charlotte, sees a downside. He said the new system could add to the competitive climate on campus.

“It’s going to add more stress to people’s lives,” he said. “People here are already stressed out.”

Few schools try

There has been no organized student opposition to the new transcripts. In the past, though, students have fought efforts to shift grading policies.

In 2007, the Faculty Council narrowly defeated a proposal for an “Achievement Index,” a statistical measure that would have taken into account course difficulty and grading variations. Student government opposed the plan, and 800 students signed a petition against it.

Still, there was a growing consensus that something needed to be done. A 2009 study showed that the average grade at UNC-CH had climbed to a 3.2 in 2008, and 82 percent of all grades were A’s and B’s. Researchers also noted that there was systematic grade inequality among different departments and instructors.

By 2010, the Faculty Council agreed that a contextual transcript was a reasonable approach. The details of the policy were approved in 2011, but implementation was delayed while university administrators made sure they had the right measures and software to carry out the project.

As part of the plan, professors are given access to internal reports that reveal their own grading history compared to others in their department and across the university.

That alone could change grading habits, said Perrin, whose average grade given is a B-.

However, he added, “My biggest worry about this policy is that it doesn’t go far enough, that it’s not going to be good enough to actually make a dent in the problem that we face.”

UNC-CH will be among a small group of U.S. universities that offer context to students’ grades.

Indiana University used to do it, but stopped because of a software change. Dartmouth College and Cornell University include median grades on transcripts. Cornell used to publish the information online, but quit in 2011 after a study revealed that enrollment spiked in classes with a median grade of A.

But there is a larger move to transcripts with broader information about students’ learning outcomes, said Brad Myers, Ohio State University registrar and president of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

“We’re really trying to say, ‘Here’s what the student has mastered, and isn’t that what you’re after, more than whether the student got a B or a C or a D in this class?’ ”

Princeton University made headlines for a 2004 policy that sought to limit A’s to 35 percent in undergraduate courses – seen as a radical approach to regulate grades. Earlier this month, a faculty committee there recommended dropping the policy, saying it was too stressful for students and was misinterpreted as a quota system.

The Princeton policy worked, said Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke University professor who for years has analyzed grade inflation nationally. It was rare in an era when students are treated as customers – high-paying customers.

Rojstaczer, who remembers a student sobbing in his office over a B-, said UNC-CH’s new transcript probably won’t stem the upward creep of grades.

“It’s a soft response to a problem,” Rojstaczer said, “but it’s probably as good as you can expect in the current academic environment.”

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