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+/- System Doesn't Make the Grade

Over the past several decades, MIT has debated a number of times the possibility of switching to a plus/minus grading system, only to back down under student pressure. Back in the 1970s, in fact, The Tech put out a special four-page supplement on the topic.

It is then with some sense of resignation that we approach the halfway point of the current grading experiment, which is designed yet again to ease the Institute in to an intermediate grading system.

Surveys have shown that students don't want it. A March 1995 referendum by the Undergraduate Association was particularly damning: Students were asked to approve or disapprove of a number of grading schemes and in the end 899 students approved of the current system while only 57 students found it unacceptable.

Despite these votes, there remains the siren's song of standards - putting MIT's grading system in parity with those of many other universities. There is also faculty opinion to contend with. A Committee on Academic Performance survey concluded that 75 percent of faculty members were in favor of an intermediate grading system. And so CAP must find a way to bring these two viewpoints together.

The Tech has long held that these viewpoints cannot be reconciled, and our impressions of the experiment to date have done little to affect that opinion. Astute professors and students have brought many times a fundamental flaw in an intermediate grading plan: MIT is a pretty homogenous place intellectually, and higher levels of resolution tend to yield very little.

In addition, there are MIT's current system has been in place long enough that a culture has grown up around it. The MIT grading system has a set of built-in uncertainties ranging from tests and curves vary which from recitation to recitation to large, subjective "class participation" grades. In the past, the rough grading system could be counted on to render these issues moot. With a new system, these uncertainties could become very real problems.

Many MIT students don't quibble with professors over every last point on tests because they know that such minor issues will eventually be lost in the rough grading scale. Expect that to end when such points can actually affect a GPA.

A compromise plan, which would make the intermediate grades internal, has been floated. While it may seem like an appealing idea at first blush, it is also flawed. We have already begun to see problems with MIT's freshman year pass/fail grading system as medical schools demand the unreleased grades as part of the admissions process. A similar thing would undoubtedly happen with the intermediate grades as well. There is no real difference between internal and external.

So we end up with a fundamental question: What do intermediate grades get us? We get additional resolution, but it is unclear if that resolution is necessary or even a fair reflection of the grades students deserve considering the uncertainties currently in the system. We are almost certain to get headaches as traditional structures bend to the new system. Intermediate grades remain an interesting idea but an ultimately doomed one.