Wednesday, May 19, 2010

College Grading System

As every semester comes to an end, and I have to input final grades for my students, I am always struck by a couple of things.

First, I will get an avalanche of emails from students who were just a couple of points from the next highest grade and they are requesting a "grade bump," when a professor exercises free grace by just bumping a student to the next grade. This is a practice that I only employed for one year, when it came back to bite me. Now I make clear in my grading policy on my syllabus that I under no circumstances will bump a grade. The reason for this became quite clear in my first year teaching, namely, it is subjective and unfair. If I bump one person, why not another. If I bump by 3 points, why not four points. Ultimately, I cannot make such choices. Better to just let the students be responsible for their own grades.

Yet, this grade bumping quandary that I face every semester brings up a much bigger issue of justice and fairness in my mind. Namely, why does someone who gets an 89.5% in my class deserve a B+ (3.5 grade points at my school) and someone who gets 90% deserve an A (4 grade points)? Is not the person with an 89.5% much closer in actual performance to the 90% student than the 90% student is to one who scored a 99%. Yet, the 90 and the 99 both receive 4 grade points. Play this out on a larger scale. Someone who scored 90s throughout college graduates with a 4.0, but we know that student has not performed as well as a 99% student, yet they both graduate with a 4.0. Why even deal with letter grades and the grade point system? It should just be dropped entirely in favor of a percentage system. Most professors grade on a percentage system and then translate that to a letter grade, which then translates to grade points. Why not remove the translation altogether and just assign people a percentage.

With a percentage system, one's performance is accurately represented to those evaluating such matters, such as graduate schools and perspective employers. In that case, a graduate school for example would know the significant difference between someone graduating with a 90% and someone with a 99%. It would also remove any need for grade bumping, and really, any impetus on the part of the student to ask for such a bump. In this system, a student who scored an 89% feels justly represented next to a 90% student, while in the present system they feel they are not correctly represented.

So, the question I return to, why a grade point system in the first place?

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