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Plus-Minus Scheme Doesn't Make the Grade

The Committee on Academic Performance's intermediate grades proposal has prompted an important campus debate. While intermediate grades may increase the equity of grading or allow for better self-evaluation, we believe they will detract from MIT's learning environment by increasing the focus on grades and correspondingly, the stress on students. The faculty should not adopt the intermediate grades proposal.

The current "coarse resolution" reflects the difficulty in making grades an accurate reflection of a student's learning or effort. Coarse resolution also "corrects" for the very real grading differences between departments, between B-centered and BC-centered classes, and between humanities subjects and science subjects. By increasing the resolution of grades, the faculty will send a false signal about how accurately grades measure performance and effort.

Intermediate grades will also increase the stress on students. With more grade boundaries to fight for, more people will fight for them. Grade-grubbing will become more common, something that both faculty and students should be concerned about. MIT will lose some of its emphasis on learning as each point becomes more important. Furthermore, the pace and pressure on students already takes a serious toll. The focus on grades itself will only increase this pace and pressure.

More grade divisions could also lead to less cooperation among peers. Will students help each other out in mastering tough concepts if a small change in the class average would lower their grade?

The new grading scheme will be difficult to implement, and the CAP has yet to produce a lucid, cogent plan for doing so. Whether current students will be "grandfathered," and whether the graduate school supports this proposal are significant questions to be considered. Furthermore, different departments already have widely disparate grading policies and practices.

Given the objections to intermediate grades, why should MIT change? Proponents of the scheme have argued that it will be more equitable. Yet this argument seems insignificant considering the problems intermediate grades will create. Students are willing to accept the "inequity" of the current system, given the tradeoff with other concerns. The absence of a ground swell of faculty support, to put it mildly, makes it doubtful that professors will apply the new system in a coherent and equitable fashion. This is particularly a concern when they are not enthusiastic about it to begin with.

Promoters of the CAP proposal also suggest that intermediate grades would help students evaluate themselves and would help professors, advisers, and the CAP evaluate a student's progress. Another way of improving evaluations would be to implement intermediate grades on an internal basis only, or to allow professors to give comments on the grade reports sent to students. Students and advisors could evaluate performance without leaving a needless blemish on a transcript, or raising stress for all students. In any case, it seems that there are other alternatives for better student evaluation that need to be explored and considered.

Intermediate grades will create more problems than they will solve. They will be inaccurate, difficult to implement, and create more stress. The CAP should concentrate on considering other viable options that will allow for self-evaluation without these problems, and MIT should concentrate on learning, not on grades.