For more than a decade, Carolina faculty have deliberated about how to address grade inflation. On April 15, the Faculty Council approved a contextual grading resolution that will alter the reporting of grades on transcripts for Carolina students entering on and after the fall of 2012.
To add context to a course grade, future transcripts will include the median grade in the class, the number of students in the class and the percentile range of the student’s grade.
In addition, each student’s report will include a schedule point average for the semester, defined as “the mean of the median grades for the reportable course sections taken by the student, weighted by the number of credit hours for which each course section was taken.”
Finally, each student will get a count of the course sections for that semester in which the student fell below, at or above the class median.
For example, following are the components of a new transcript entry for Economics 101H:
Course Grade: A
Quality points: 12.00
Percentile range: [ 0% – 66%]
The only components currently reported are the grade, credit hours and quality points. Quality points are a multiple of the grade and the hours; an A (4.0) in a three-hour class would give a student 12 quality points.
The change comes in response to longstanding concerns over grade inflation, grade compression and an inequality in grades among instructors and across departments. Grade compression refers to a shrinking distribution of grades because grades are concentrated around A’s and B’s, which makes it more difficult to distinguish among undergraduates.
In 2010, the council approved a new contextual grading policy in concept and appointed a committee led by Andrew Perrin, associate professor and associate chair in the sociology department, to draft the terms.
“We don’t really have any faith in the fairness of grades students achieve across the University,” Perrin said.
Perrin said a number of graduate schools have supported the additional information in transcripts.
The transcript change will affect only classes with at least 10 undergraduates. The language allows some time for the registrar to make necessary changes in systems and reporting.
“The main thing I have to make sure is that we can do it right,” said Assistant Provost and Registrar Christopher Derickson. “If it can’t be done right by 2012, then I think it’s a pretty easy choice.”
Aside from transcripts, the policy has two other aspects: providing faculty with contextual reports of their own grading and launching a public database of grade distributions at Carolina. In the past, only department chairs received grading reports.
“Most department chairs are not paying much attention to these,” Perrin said. Now, instructors also will receive those reports, which will compare their grading with a distribution of other instructors who taught the same course as well as general distributions in their school or department and of the entire University.
Perrin hopes the metrics will lead to more consistent grading across the University.
The council’s vote was 21-13, an unusual split.
“I don’t see that this will have any major effect on grade inflation,” said Tom Linden, a Glaxo Wellcome Distinguished Professor of medical journalism, who voted against the plan.
Linden, who directs the master’s program in medical and science journalism in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said the level of details would not be helpful to him.
“It’s a level of complexity that we’re adding to the whole transcript system that will not give a whole lot of bang for the buck.”
Linden worries the focus on grades deemphasizes the value in intellectual curiosity.
“We’re reinforcing what I think is already too much emphasis on grades,” he said.
Holly Boardman, a senior from Brentwood, Tenn., who studied Spanish and biology, served on the subcommittee that produced the change. Boardman, a former student body vice president, said the policy may not be popular with students.
“This is an initiative that will make a lot of students raise eyebrows because it’s not something you will see at almost any university in the country, and that’s scary,” Boardman said. “We are one of few universities who do it, and because of that, a lot of grad schools aren’t going to use it,” she said. “You can’t just have one university be a trailblazer on this issue.
“I think it is a good step that might be met with some resistance by students at first, but in the long run it really isn’t that dramatic of a change. I think it will have next to no impact on student success after college, which kind of raises the question of why did we do it in the first place.”