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Faculty Should Delay Decision on New Grading System

Column by Raajnish A. Chitaley
Associate Opinion Editor

The November/December MIT Faculty Newsletter reports that the Faculty Committee on Academic Performance may soon propose a momentous change to the grading system. Specifics are not final at the moment, but the CAP will probably advocate the creation of intermediate grades for undergraduates.

Most of the discussion has centered around two schemes. One would include plus/minus grades (except for A+ and D-), and the other would create grades of "A/B" and "B/C" between A, B, and C. Whatever the proposal, current MIT students would be "grandfathered" out of the new system, whatever that means.

The driving force behind this proposal is the faculty view that the current grading system is difficult. Term after term, faculty convert a wide range of irregularly distributed numerical grades into just five grades. For the faculty who avoid giving D's and F's, an entire distribution must be squeezed into just three letter grades. Many faculty agonize over assigning just a few grades for a wide distribution. For students "on the borderline" of two grades, they rely on a variety of methods to assign grades, ranging from complex mathematical formulae to "gut feel." And we all know what happens when you're on the borderline: frequent visits to the suddenly fabulous TA, and free-flowing questions at office hours.

The current grading system is also assailed as unfair. Since professors must squeeze as few as three grades from a broad range of numerical scores, students with large differences in scores may end up with the same letter grade. Most of us have experienced this phenomenon (both positively and negatively). Faculty want to more precisely reward good performance and mediocre performance. I imagine that the AB and BC borders are of particular concern to those faculty eager to push some B's to C+'s, B+'s to A-'s.

Furthermore, as CAP Chair Nigel H.M. Wilson PhD '70 points out, grade inflation over the last few decades also makes the current grading system inadequate. Wilson suggests that grade inflation "was partly the result of a conscious decision to redress the disadvantage it was felt that affected many MIT undergraduates when they applied to graduate programs in competition with undergraduates from other universities." Grade inflation, the faculty argues, makes fair grading difficult.

The CAP attempted to survey students about the proposal in the fall. The turnout was low and results inconclusive. Of those who responded, most had no preference for any scheme, other than to retain the current grading system. With that result in hand, the CAP has continued to formulate and push forward the proposal, even though it seems that most undergraduates do not even know that such a change is being contemplated.

Irrespective of the specifics, the intermediate grades proposal raises issues not just of equity and flexibility for faculty, but about competition and pressure for students. The fact is that we like to compete; after all, winning competitions in high school is how we ended up here. And we like to put pressure on ourselves, for fear of not making the most of MIT once we got here. Given the opportunity to fight for that extra half grade, or fight against that lower half grade, we will. Only more competition can result. These half grades will contribute and mean little to our understanding of coursework. Has an "A-" student learned meaningfully more than a "B+" student?

I would suggest the following postulate: the higher the "resolution" in the grading system, the higher the pressure on students. Take for example the pass/no record system that our freshmen enjoy. With such low resolution, the competition between students is almost non-existent (or at least non-significant). And while under considerable strain, the pace and pressure is unequivocally less than if the freshmen were on grades.

At the other extreme, imagine a grading system comparable to those used in many other countries, that is, a pure numerical score. If pure numerical scores were reported, the faculty would have no reason to complain about the difficulty of assigning grades, not to mention grade inflation. Yet competition would sky-rocket as every point became significant. I know that two points a curve does not make, but I argue that competition and pressure are monotonic increasing functions of grade resolution.

The pseudo-mathematics should not disguise the fundamental issue at hand. MIT already takes an intellectual, emotional, and even physical toll on its students. Do the benefits for faculty (and perhaps students, if you accept the equity argument), exceed the costs - very real human costs - of increased competition and pressure?

The timing of this proposal is also questionable. Why, now, change the grading system when undergraduate education and undergraduate life issues are in upheaval? With the arrival of new dean(s) for undergraduate education and student affairs (as well as a grand review of undergraduate experience reportedly once contemplated by the president), examinations of undergraduate life seem to be imminent. With these changes looming, the faculty should delay any decision on a new grading system.

While the faculty may have their reasons for pushing either of the schemes that the CAP may decide to propose, we should look at intermediate grades with close scrutiny and skepticism. Our representatives to CAP and other student leaders should be admonished to pay careful attention to whatever proposal emerges, as well as to aggressively gather and communicate student views. The risks to students are too great for us to ignore this issue.