At UNC-Chapel Hill, the truth about grades (New Observer)

BY JANE STANCILL jstancill@newsobserver.com

August 30, 2014

CHAPEL HILL — Tar Heels in search of the easy A, beware. Starting this fall, UNC-Chapel Hill transcripts will provide a little truth in grading.

From now on, transcripts for university graduates will contain a healthy dose of context.

Next to a student’s grade, the record will include the median grade of classmates, the percentile range and the number of students in the class section. Another new measure, alongside the grade point average, is the schedule point average. A snapshot average grade for a student’s mix of courses, the SPA is akin to a sports team’s strength of schedule.

The nuanced transcripts will provide more information for graduate schools and employers, who should be better able to judge the difference between good and excellent performance. An A- in psychology might not look so swell when the average grade in the class is an A. On the other hand, an A- in physics looks downright impressive if the class average is a C+.

The new contextual transcript is the university’s response to grade inflation – the long-term trend of rising grades that began in the 1960s and accelerated in the 1980s.

Grade inflation has been well documented nationally, most recently in a 2012 study published in Teachers College Record, an academic journal at Columbia University. Researchers collected grade data for 135 U.S. colleges and universities, representing 1.5 million students. They found that A’s are now the most commonly awarded grade – 43 percent of all grades. Failure is almost unheard of, with D’s and F’s making up less than 10 percent of all college grades.

The study found that grade inflation has been most pronounced at elite private universities, trailed by public flagship campuses and then less selective schools. Grading tends to be higher in humanities courses, followed by social sciences. The lowest grades tend to occur in the science, math and engineering disciplines.

Andrew Perrin, a sociology professor at UNC-CH, said the system provides a perverse incentive for students to seek courses not because of intellectual interests or career aspirations, but to pad their GPAs. Popular sites such as Rate My Professors include a measure of “easiness” for each faculty member.

Anything less than an A is unacceptable for some students. 

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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