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SA starts discussion on grade policy

By Amber Tong     4/21/15 5:37pm

In light of the implementation of grade collaring policies in certain introductory courses, the Student Association hopes to initiate a discussion regarding departmental policies against grade inflation in the fall, according to Sid Richardson College senator Justin Onwenu. 

Onwenu, a freshman, said he noticed the issue in a statistics class, the syllabus of which stated that only the top 40 percent can receive an A, and felt a need to discuss it.

The spring 2015 syllabi for Elementary Applied Statistics (STAT 280), Introduction to Statistics for Biosciences (STAT 305), Probability and Statistics (STAT 310) and Methods for Data Analysis (STAT 385) all state that no more than 40 percent of the classes will receive a grade of A-plus, A or A-minus. 

According to the STAT 280 and 305 syllabi, “This policy is meant to help [ensure] similar grades across sections taught by different instructors and is being implemented in a number of introductory classes in the department of statistics.”

However, according to the course offering page for fall 2015, there will be only one teacher for all STAT 280 and STAT 305 classes.

“I was shocked,” Onwenu said. “I brought it up to [the Student Association], and everyone was on the same page in feeling [that] grade inflation policy is an issue that is important — and I know a lot of universities are dealing with it — but it’s how you go about it that’s important.”

According to Marina Vannucci, chair of the statistics department, the policy was introduced in the fall semester in response to student concerns.

"It was discussed and approved by the instructors, following up on concerns raised by students who took the courses in previous semesters," Vannucci said.

According to Onwenu, the policy is problematic because it may discourage collaboration and engender negative competition.

“The goal is to learn as much as possible and if we can work together and collaborate, that’s good,” Onwenu said. “But if I see you as competition, [I might think,] ‘Oh I’m not going to help you [as you may] get  above me and I may be knocked down a grade level.’”

The long-term focus should be on learning instead of besting fellow students, Onwenu said. 

“Students don’t have a problem with increasing difficulty of classes; students have a problem with a cutthroat environment,” Onwenu said. “I’m worried the statistics department policy [...] has the potential to disrupt Rice’s collaborative sort of environment.”

Onwenu said the statistics department probably implemented the grade-collaring policy in response to a legislation passed by the Faculty Senate in April 2014. 

“Two years ago, the SA and the Faculty Senate launched a working group [and] conducted a tremendous amount of research in terms of how Rice compares to other universities, and how our grading policies and distribution of grades are at Rice,” Onwenu said. 

The report Onwenu referred to was the Final Report, published in March 2014 by the Working Group on Grade Inflation, which stated, “Every academic program that offers 100- to 300- level courses will have a faculty-wide discussion about grading practices [...] at least once every five years. [...] Each department and program should decide how to frame the discussions of grading in the courses their faculty teach.”

While the subject matter is not new, Onwenu said it is crucial to keep the conversation going to ensure the spirit of the legislation translates well into implementation.

“Grade inflation is a word that’s just been thrown around — faculty is probably tired of discussing it,” Onwenu said. “But now is the time that the policies are now being implemented. [...] We are finally seeing the effects of it.”

Baker College freshman Leah Rubin, who is in STAT 280, said making an introductory course difficult seems contradictory to its purpose.

“It is supposed to be an [introductory] low-level class, so to collar the grades doesn’t make sense,” Rubin said.

Fanny Huang, a Baker College sophomore, is currently taking Applied Probability (STAT 331), which is not affected by this policy. However, she said the grading policy should not have a huge impact on individuals’ performance.

“I’ll just do my best,” Huang said. “And no matter what [grading] scale the professors use, I believe I’ll get the grade I deserve.”

Faculty Senate speaker James Weston said the statistics department has the autonomy to configure its own policy, independent of the Senate.

“Academic assessment standards belong to the faculty, [not] the Faculty Senate,” Weston said. “Our constitution does not provide any regulatory authority over grade distributions at the class, department or university level. What standards statistics decides to set are up to them.”

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