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Could Grades in College Become History?

Report card

Should students' college transcripts include a larger context for their grades?

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but how often in college is an A really an A?

A sociologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, argues that an A should mean outstanding work. “If everyone gets an A for adequate completion of tasks, it cripples our ability to recognize exemplary scholarship,” Andrew Perrin told The New York Times.
He’s working with UNC to clarify what grades really mean and whether extra information, like median grades, should be added to transcripts, which would thereby add context to a student’s academic profile.

Apparently college grades have been rising due to grade inflation, although some schools, like Princeton, are fighting against it by mandating that no more than 35 percent of undergraduate grades can be A’s — although that seems like it could be just as unfair as inflating grades (if you actually deserve an A, that is).

At Dartmouth College, transcripts include median grades, and transcripts from Columbia University illustrate the percentage of students in each course who earned A’s. The New York Times says students are worried in hard economic times that professors who don’t easily award A’s will leave them handicapped when it comes time to apply to graduate school and for jobs.

It’s not like I graduated from college and went on to become a captain of industry (especially not my first job, which required me to wear a uniform and give tours of NBC for $9.23 an hour), but I managed to sneak into some competitive positions after that and no one ever asked me about my GPA.

However, if I had applied to graduate school, I might or might not have wanted my grades to be put in any kind of context. (I might have preferred that the D I got in Historical Geology quietly died on its own if everyone else did well in class, but I would have enjoyed bragging that the A I got in Shakespeare’s Tragedies was one of only a few in the class.)

While I’m not a big fan of taking standardized tests (mostly because I’m awful at them) and feel for everyone getting the results of their ACT exams today, I do see the value when students are graded according to a uniform standard.

In the mid ‘90′s, Cornell University’s faculty started practicing a “truth in grading” policy in which median grades were posted online. As a result, course enrollment shot up for classes with lots of A’s.

In general, extra context on a transcript can be great if you do well (obviously), but it seems to me that there’s so much scrutiny when applying to school, and that the school you’re at should provide a good deal of context as to the difficulty of the course work. An A at Harvard will likely carry more weight in the court of public opinion than an A at a community college, no matter what. And other than some math, science and multiple-choice exams, isn’t grading incredibly subjective anyway?

Do you think college transcripts should provide context?

Image: Creative Commons

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