Published in AMS Quarterly, vol. 4 (June 2000), p. 7.
Original manuscript; copyright retained by the author
[other essays]

EVALUATING THE POINT OF GRADES
by
Herbert Jack Rotfeld
Auburn University Alumni Professor
Department of Marketing
Auburn University, Alabama, U.S.A.
Rotfeld@auburn.edu

Minutes of Board of Trustees meeting (excerpt), Kishwaukee University of Ubiquity,

To guide discussion on grading practices, the Vice President for Academic Affairs distributed a brief report showing the percentages of A, B and C grades awarded by student level (freshman through senior), college and department, plus the overall Grade Point Averages (GPA) for the university and how these have changed over the past thirty years. To summarize, the Vice President pointed out that the mean has improved by an impressive amount over the decades. In 1970, the average grade was a bit over a C (2.20 GPA) and today it is a B plus (GPA 3.6). More than half of all grades in the past two academic years were A. . . .

The Board was pleased with the report and its findings, since it indicated that Kishwaukee now enrolls more capable students. Everyone agreed that good grades help our graduates to compete on the job market, with subsequent discussion on ways the Board could direct the restructuring of more courses to ensure that the average student would be more able to get these top grades. . . . .

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To: Academic Standards Committee
From: Knott Dee Manding, Committee chair

The Kishwaukee president has forwarded to me a lengthy letter that he recently received from a new faculty member, Dr. Ohsuch Fun, that I am sending it to you for our review. In her strongly worded request for a change in our grading system, Professor Fun expressed dismay about our current systems' lack of recognition for plus and minus grades, lamenting that it does not allow her to distinguish between degrees of B-level performance in her classes. The president, in turn, has referred her concerns to us for discussion and possible action.

I have taken the liberty of conducting an informal poll of some faculty and graduate students around campus as to their opinions and views on plus minus grades, and some of their comments are appended to this note. Many faculty agree that they would like to have a system that records differing levels of A or B grades. The students seem to be wildly in favor of such a change, saying it would tend to increase their GPA. As one student wrote, "With the pressure on grades increasing and students needing higher grades for admission to graduate and professional programs, this would be a big help." However, responses were not totally supportive. Some students did not like the idea of "minus" grades since it would denigrate the grades in a way that could add an unfortunate stigmata to their accomplishment of an A or B.

Overall, the only strong opposition seems to be from some of the Engineering faculty and a few crusty elders in the School of Accountancy and Department of Marketing. Comparing their responses to our recent study of grade distributions, they are the faculty who still give a large number of C, D and F grades. Since these faculty have not enjoyed the increasing quality of students that would enable them to give more top grades term, they see no need to distinguish between the varying degrees of B.

[Side-note: No one seems concerned about distinguishing between differing degrees of C or D performance!]

We will meet to discuss this next Wednesday at 3 p.m. in the Dean's conference room, the one on the top floor with the plush leather chairs, 25 foot long meeting table and area set aside for golf putting practice.

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From: Eilene Ukiss, Chair, Board of Trustees Committee on Academic Standards and Football
RE: Recommended new grade guidelines

Following the approval of the University Senate and Recommendations from the President, we voted to recommend adoptions of changes in the grade standards as follows: A+, A, B+, B, C+, C and N.

We eliminated the proposal for minus grades in that they would make a negative comment on the otherwise positive performances of out students that might hurt them as they apply for graduate programs or jobs. Similarly, D and F are also eliminated as unduly stigmatizing for the hard-working students. In their place will be the grade of N, for "No Credit," to be used in those rare instances in which a student was unable to attend enough classes to receive a passing grade.

We also recommend that the president be directed to report back in one year on an investigation of all faculty who give many C or N grades. These people harm the reputation of our university.

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From: Uwork Fourmee, Office of Personnel and Recruitment
RE: Evaluating grades of college graduates

In the past, we grades as a discriminating tool to screen applicants to join us as new employees. However, but the information increasingly has been garbled and confusing of late as every applicant claims a GPA over 3.8. We have looked at transcripts, but no one shows a grade lower than C, except for a rare N (whatever that means). Everyone has plus grades, but I have never seen an A minus or B minus. Our pre-screening formula that includes GPA  has started to use numbers going to seven or eight decimal places.

In search of a solution, I contacted a faculty member where I got my M.B.A. degree and asked how they handle this with their applicants. He told me they recently adopted a system that she said is now in use by most graduate programs. Their approach does seem to greatly simplify matters. We just need to recognize that grades mean something different than when I went to school when Ronald Reagan was the President, so we, too, will adopt this system.

To do this, we will now look at all transcripts and calculate our own GPA: A+ will be worth 4 points, A or the rare A- will be 3 points, B+ will 2 points, B or lower will be worth a point and N will be zero, though the course credits will be used for GPA calculations.

I don't know about you, but I am tired of graduates saying they had top grades but they can't write a simple sentence and are unable to answer a question unless they are first told the options and given a friend to call. Maybe this will return some sanity to the system.