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CAP to Survey Students' Views on Changing Grading System

By Eva Moy
Senior Editor

The Committee on Academic Performance will release a survey this week to collect students' opinions about the current grading system used by the Institute.

Faculty and students have expressed concern that letter grades do not provide a fine enough distinction between different levels of performance, said Chair of the CAP Nigel H. M. Wilson PhD '70.

"Currently, approximately 80 percent of undergraduate letter grades are either A or B, implying that students with quite distinct levels of performance can receive identical grades," according to the cover letter of the committee's survey.

The freshman Pass/No Record system would remain unaffected, Wilson said.

The survey will be distributed through the dormitories and independent living groups, and it will also be available in Room 7-104. They are due by Oct. 28, and the results will be tabulated in November, Wilson said.

"I really sympathize with the students who see me about their grades," said Wilson, who is a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and periodically teaches Introduction to Computers and Engineering Problem Solving (1.00). Where a student falls on the A-B borderline depends on "whether you were lucky or not," he said.

The possibility of changing the grading system has been under discussion since late spring, but "before we got too far on that, we wanted to get the undergraduate view," Wilson said.

The CAP may also poll faculty members, based on the results from the undergraduate survey, Wilson said.

The CAP interprets and administers the grading policy for undergraduates, as well as evaluating undergraduate performance. The CAP consists of six faculty members and three students. Members of the Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs also attend the meetings, though they do not have voting power.

All proposals would eventually come to a vote at a faculty meeting. Wilson hopes that if students want a change, the faculty will vote on one by the end of this academic year.

Survey offers four choices

The survey asks students to rank four possible systems for assigning grades and to explain their reasoning. Any changes are not meant to change the overall distribution of grades, but to more finely distinguish the range between each letter grade, Wilson said.

The first choice is the present system.

The second choice would create an intermediate grade between each existing letter grade. Thus, students could receive an A, AB, B, BC, C, CD, D, and F. The intermediate grades would be worth 4.5 for an AB, 3.5 for a BC, and 2.5 for a CD.

The third choice presents even finer distinction between the letter grades, adding both pluses and minuses: A, A-, B+, B, B-, C+, C, C-, D+, D, and F. Each plus is 0.3 points higher than the letter grade; each minus is 0.3 less. For example, an A- is a 4.7 and a C+ is a 3.3.

The fourth choice is basically the same as the third, with the addition of A+ and D- grades. These two grades would be worth the same as an A (5.0) and a D (2.0), but the extra plus and minus are just a way of indicating exceptionally good or bad performances on the transcript.

Finally, the survey asks students if they would favor changing to a 4.0 system, like many other U.S. universities.

All of the Ivy League schools, except Brown University, use a plus-minus system, said Michael H. C. Joo '95, a student member of the CAP. While letter grades relieve the stress of getting an A over an A-, the current numerical jump between letter grades is too large, Joo said. The system of intermediate grades provides a medium between these two options, he said.

Both the ABCDF system and the 5.0 scale are features unique to MIT, Joo said. "I think a lot of people are so set in their ways that it might be hard to change," he said.