Some background: since 2009 I’ve been working on grade transparency as one policy response to grade inflation, grade compression, and grade inequality at UNC. (See here, here, here, and here, among others.) After many, many meetings, conversations, presentations, and discussions, at last week’s Faculty Council meeting the Educational Policy Committee delivered a report on the policy that may well signal its demise. Below are the comments I made at the Faculty Council meeting in the discussion on that report.
Friends and colleagues,
In the fall of 2009 I came to Faculty Council to present and discuss the first-ever truly comprehensive report on grading patterns at Carolina, prepared by a team led by Donna Gilleskie. Following lots of conversation here and around campus, the following spring Faculty Council took a bold step, endorsing transparency about grading as a way of addressing the three main and serious problems the report identified: grade inflation, grade compression, and systematic grade inequality. And following another year of careful design and discussion, in the spring of 2011 Faculty Council passed the specific implementation resolution.
Looking back, I think all that happened at perhaps a more innocent time for the university. A time when the faculty believed we could, and had a duty to, really lead our peers nationally in addressing a thorny problem that gets to the heart of educational quality.
We continue to have a real problem with grading: a problem with negative implications for our students’ education. It’s a problem that means students sometimes take courses not because of the course content or a wonderful teacher but to pad their GPAs. There are even widely used websites that help them find these courses. The problem can penalize students for trying out intellectual interests in areas they are not used to or with great instructors that are known to “grade hard.” In fields like mine it becomes very difficult to incentivize and reward outstanding performance when students expect high grades for merely adequate work. In other fields it is hard to demonstrate to students dejected about grades that their B- actually demonstrated above average work. And certainly anytime the university uses GPA as a standard for anything, like Dean’s list, entry into majors and scholarships, graduation with distinction, and so on, we are basing those decisions on unfair and invalid comparisons and reinforcing all those perverse incentives.
In 2010, the fact that Carolina was no worse than our peers wasn’t good enough, and it really shouldn’t be good enough now. Our grading practices, as they currently exist, impede our ability to provide excellent education. Contextualized transcripts, showing on a transcript where a student’s grade falls in relation to other students’ grades, is an innovative and visionary step toward addressing many of these problems. And the fact that we were leading the way earned us positive features in the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and many more, along with requests from other universities to show them the way.
Honestly it never crossed my mind that by the spring of 2017 the contextualized transcript policy still wouldn’t have been implemented. But after an enormous amount of work on the part of many people, here we are. I could not be more disappointed to be at this point, nor honestly more personally sad.
For the record, I disagree with the EPC’s assessment, both of the report from last semester’s implementation committee (on which I served) and of the resources necessary to do this. But I’ll go out on a limb to say that making us a national leader on a major educational issue seems like something worth funding at this point in our history. Certainly we’ve had to spend a lot more money for a lot less educational return recently. So I hope Faculty Council will eventually decide to continue implementing this innovative, visionary policy on behalf of our students’ education and renew Carolina’s commitment to leading in this area.
But even if that doesn’t happen, please allow me, as a faculty member who has worked on this subject for nearly a decade, to encourage EPC to return urgently to the only topic with which they are permanently charged: monitoring and recommending policy to improve grading patterns at Carolina.