of grade reform and deliberation

On Friday, UNC’s faculty council approved legislation that will put into place a series of reforms aimed at increased transparency in grade reporting. I chaired the implementation committee, charged with the details of how last year’s resolution (see discussion here) would be implemented, and I presented the legislation at faculty council on Friday.

My first observation is that Faculty Council has become more deliberative–that is to say, less complacent–than it was when I was on it. Members asked good, probing, and challenging questions to several of the items on the agenda prior to mine. Then came mine… with more challenging questions! One member protested that we “hadn’t had enough time” to evaluate the proposal (this having been approved in concept a full year before, discussed several times before and during that period, and through countless small group discussions). Another member, from the School of Education, found fault with the proposal because “we want all our students to be above average” (I kid you not). Another member, from the School of Journalism, argued that we should be moving to a different system based on pass/fail/honors.

At the time, and immediately afterward, I was really irritated with all of this (and I still am, to some extent). After all, Faculty Council had passed a resolution a year ago making the policy official. Our committee was charged with implementing it, so concerns with whether or not the policy was a good idea are no longer relevant, right? There’s a built-in evaluation clause that allows us to revisit the policy, this time with some data, five years after implementation.

I was relieved that the policy passed, 21-13, and so will be implemented, and I’m looking forward to working with our truly wonderful registrar on the nitty-gritty. I think it’s really important, and will be really good for UNC and hopefully for higher education in general.

On reflection, I have also become much less bitter over the Council’s debate (and one of my colleagues’ “no” vote!). It was definitely frustrating to have to deal with the “two steps forward, one step back” feel of the discussion, but I guess that’s what deliberation is about.

Update: Coverage in Inside Higher Ed here.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

5 thoughts on “of grade reform and deliberation”

  1. Andy,

    I’ll be eager to hear reports on the implementation of UNC’s initiative. Grades and Grading have truly become the elephant in the room in Higher Ed. If Arum and Roska’s argument from Academically Adrift holds… (and it reflects what I see on my campus) I suspect you will demonstrate the bankruptcy of current grading models.

    Perhaps reporting medians and percentile ranks will lead to some institutional change. Then again, it may just lead to drawn out self-protective debates driven by those who see grade inflation as a cancer infecting the campus pitted against those whose classes routinely “perform well”.

    What are your thoughts about this initiative w/r/t Arum and Roska’s argument that students are learning little despite the grades on their transcript? Do you think a reporting and transparency program will open a space to take on that elephant?

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    1. Corey, I do think that this is a good first step toward addressing big concerns about student learning, which is of course ultimately the thing we care most about. I find Arum and Roska’s argument very compelling, and very distressing, and I certainly don’t think our reform will fix a problem that big — but my hope is that faculty and students will be encouraged to prefer grades that more honestly reflect student achievement, and that students will therefore have greater incentives to do better work — and hence to study.

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  2. I, too, was impressed by the fact that the Faculty Council at UNC has become more engaged in the debate about grade reporting. For me this was a very welcome development.
    For several reasons, I am not a fan of the current approach to “enhanced grade reporting”: reporting grade distributions does nothing to directly address grade inflation; it may disadvantage UNC students in applications to graduate school, etc.; it flies in the face of standards-based or mastery grading practices; it will enhance competition and undermine student collaboration; and it completely ignores the diversity of factors, besides the level of rigor or the appropriateness of standard, that affect the grade distribution in a course.
    More importantly, however, I am a firm believer that these types of issues deserve a rigorous debate. I was quite frustrated to see that last year, when I was not on the council, the authorization to report grade distributions on transcripts passed with so little debate, never mind much dissention. So, while it was too late and too tepid to do much good, I took the debate in the council on this issue (and others) last week as a good sign for faculty governance.

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    1. Kyle – I thought there was a fair amount of debate last year too, albeit not actually in Faculty Council. For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on the concerns you express:

      1. Does nothing to directly address grade inflation: true, but among the seven options presented to Faculty Council, this was the one we were authorized to pursue.
      2. May disadvantage UNC students: I really don’t understand how! For every student whose high GPA looks worse due to contextual information, there’s another student whose lower GPA looks better. For the students as a whole, there’s a benefit as UNC is known as a serious-grade institution. I suppose if grades go down because of the reform, that’s a “disadvantage,” but only insofar as current grades are false reflections of achievement. Not to mention that, if so, that would be a contradiction of the “doesn’t do anything to address grade inflation” objection!
      3. flies in the face of standards-based or mastery grading practices: only if you add the assumption that an A represents adequate mastery (which UNC’s existing grade policy does not support). Put another way: if every student in the class is able to perform at the mastery-based A level, it follows that some students in the class could have performed beyond that level if they had been inspired to do so. Mastery grading is great, but the bar should be set such that we can encourage and reward excellence, not just adequacy.
      4. will enhance competition and undermine collaboration: I think this objection is overblown, though I agree it’s a concern. Students already compete for ranks in various ways. Furthermore, in a class of 50 or more students (like most at UNC) the marginal negative effect of collaborating would likely be cancelled out by the marginal positive effect of doing a better job because of that collaboration.
      5. diversity of factors…that affect grade distribution: sure, that’s true, and our previous attempt did a better job of that, while sacrificing some other important principles. But recognize that a typical student at UNC takes 40 classes during her college career; no single outlier should really affect her overall average. And the transcript includes information about the class itself, so a reasonable reader can see if it’s an honors section, a small class, etc.

      Honestly, my biggest concern remains that this reform remains inadequate to the problem. But I’m convinced that this is what we can do now, and that it is, on balance, an improvement over the status quo.

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  3. It might be relevant to mention that elite high schools (and some colleges) are moving in the direction of refusing to rank their students. Shamus mentions this issue in his book. I’ve been told stories by students of how the acceptance rate at top colleges from their high schools went up after the school stopped ranking students. I would not be surprised to see a similar trend about job acceptance rates or grad school acceptance rates from schools that insist on pushing back against grade inflation and providing more information about relative grades.

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