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Faculty Senate addresses grade inflation trend

By Christen Sparago     11/12/13 6:00pm

A working group formed by the Faculty Senate proposed a set of actions to address grade inflation at the Nov. 11 Student Senate meeting.

Jane Grande-Allen, chair of the Working Group on Grade Inflation, said the data gathered from the Office of the Registrar shows there has been steady increase in the grades received by students in all classes over the last 15 years, but that this increase has plateaued over the last eight semesters. 

However, the extent of the rate of change over time was not clear because the y-axes on the graphs in the presentation were not labeled with numbers.

"We don't want to focus on the numbers too much," Grande-Allen, a professor of bioengineering, said. "The average grade has topped off; most people are getting As."

Committee member Evan Siemann said that since 1989, the earliest date on the graph, the average grade received in any course had risen from 3.25 to 3.5.

"We do not think a discussion overly focused on numbers would be very helpful," Siemann, chair of ecology and evolutionary biology, said.

The presentation showed there have been roughly twice as many As as Bs over the last eight semesters, with A+s being slightly more common than Cs.

Grande-Allen said the rising grade average is caused by a variety of factors.

"Lots of students will drop or pass/fail classes if they're not going to get a B or higher," Grande-Allen said.

The proposed actions included recommendations that each department develop guidelines for expectations of the frequency of each grade category and the level of student performance expected in order to earn a certain grade, depending on the type of course and associated assignments. 

The committee also recommended that deans and department chairs receive lists of courses in which only As or A+s were given after each semester, at which time the instructors of these courses would be expected to provide written justification for why these courses should continue to have letter grades given and a plan for better distributing those grades. If the instructor fails to provide adequate reasoning, the committee recommended converting the course to "satisfactory/fail," a grade designation that would need to be created by the Registrar specifically for this purpose.

Some courses in the School of Architecture and the Shepherd School of Music yield higher grades because the students who enroll are honing specific skills, according to the presentation.

"For specialized classes, it seems more reasonable that there are more As and Bs," Grande-Allen said. "They ought to have different expectations about what levels of performance will get you which kinds of grades."

Arthur Gottschalk, professor and former chair of composition and theory at the Shepherd School, said it would be more difficult to address grade-inflation concerns in more specialized courses.

"We have competencies we're trying to achieve in these classes, and if you meet those competencies and get a good grade, that is grade inflation only to the extent that there's a large number of grades," Gottschalk said. "I don't give you a grade; you earn your grade."

Gottschalk said it is important to avoid setting unreasonably high expectations simply because students are receiving good grades. He said his MUSI 431: Aural Skills and Performance Techniques V class is an example of a high level of competency being achieved by students who therefore receive good grades.

"If the most common grade in the class is an A+, that means those people are meeting and exceeding the competency level I'm asking for," Gottschalk said. "Should I adjust my expectations and my competency goals higher? They're already pretty high. If you look at Aural Skills in all our peer institutions, we're doing much more and for much more time than our peer institutions."

Grande-Allen said the committee is also working to help professors teach their classes in the most effective way possible.


"Some of the faculty we've been talking to have been asking why we aren't making sure we're actually teaching the students what they need to know and assessing them correctly," Grande-Allen said. 

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