Friday, May 21, 2010

College Grading System Revisited

As a follow up to my previous post on the college grading system, I wanted to direct my readers to an interesting Washington Post article about dissatisfaction with the letter grade system. I found it most interesting in discussing the history of letter grades in the United States.

There is also in interesting discussion of grading in Robert Persig's classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I have always found his discussion, which involves abolishing the grading system, and really, any evaluation system at all, tantalizing, if ultimately unworkable. Yet, he raises a number of important issues. His ultimate conclusion: that grades actually hold a student back. They determine what grade they want to get (some students are happy being C Students), and then work only hard enough to get that grade.

I also wanted to add a few of my own comments on the Post article.

First, I found it interesting that letter grades are not as entrenched as I thought. The first came from a Harvard Professor in 1883, only 130 years ago.

Second, once letter grades became more or less the standard, I found the strictness of the grading system harsh, or have we been dumbing down our grading system. Here is the example of the grading scale from Mt. Holyoke College, 1897:

A 95-100
B 85-94
C 76-84
D 75
E (= F) below 75

If I presented this scale to my students, there would be a mass revolt.

Most of the negative comments about letter grades in the article concerned issues of different standards at different schools, grade inflation, etc. Nevertheless, I think the biggest issue which I raised in my last post, is one of justice and fairness, and how students perceive the way in which they are represented by their grades. A student has a good point that an 89.5% B+ does not represent him or her fairly compared to a 90% A. Going to a percentage grading system, I would think, would solve these problems for both teachers and students.

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