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Making Grades Meaningful: Plus-Minus Grades Can Counteract the Evils of Grade Inflation

Naveen Sunkavally

As the three-year grading experiment nears its end, and now that students' memories of pristine times before the experiment have been largely obliterated, reckoning time is upon us. Are we to permit naked letter grades to be dressed like Thanksgiving turkeys with plus/minus modifiers, or will we eat our turkeys raw?

On one hand, the faculty have clamored for dressed turkeys in order to distinguish the brilliant from the merely smart students. On the other hand, students have resisted dressed turkeys in fear of graduate-school and workplace rejection. And, of course, there is the compromise position, which allows modifiers for internal purposes but does not add them in on transcripts and cumulative grade point averages.

The compromise position strikes me as the worst of the three possibilities. First, it muddles the student-professor relationship. Under the current system, when choosing between an A- and B+, professors do not realize - or can conveniently forget - that they are really choosing between an A and a B. When giving out the A- or B+ to a student, the professor feels he or she is giving out an A- or B+ while the student feels he or she is receiving an A or B, since that is what appears on the transcript. In this way, the compromise position allows professors to skirt responsibility for students' grades, albeit unintentionally.

Second, internal modifiers muddle MIT's relationship with other schools and companies. It offers microwave-cooked turkeys that are hot and appetizing on the outside but frigid inside. What is reflected outside to graduate schools and companies is not what is reflected on the inside, and while some students reap more than is deserved, others suffer unduly. Like a funny mirror at the circus, the compromise position distorts and diminishes the value of grades.

Confronted with the two remaining options, of implementing modifiers both internally and externally or of returning to naked letter grades, I would adopt the former. My belief rests on the need to combat that all-too-familiar demon of grade inflation.

Believe it or not, students today have it easier than students only a decade ago. Students now find it easier to make an A than students before, and the reason is simple: as the center in many classes has shifted from C to B, students have had to work less beyond the average to attain A's. The same diluting of intellect can be observed in the ludicrous "re-centering" of the SAT.

Thus it is only understandable that the faculty have felt a need to add modifiers to maintain the Institute's academic integrity. Students have not suddenly made a quantum leap in intellect equivalent to one-grade-level's worth in the space of a couple of decades. Faced with more students receiving A's, professors need modifiers to re-establish the distinction at upper levels that was available under a C-centered system; like a howling banshee, the rise of B-centered classes has naturally beckoned the extinction of naked letter grades.

However, with the possibility of adding modifiers comes the fear that the center of classes will just shift up to the B+ (as is the case at Harvard), or even to the A-, further contributing to grade inflation. An even better solution - that would completely dissolve the modifier debate - would be to make all classes C-centered again.

For the most part, students find the idea of returning to a C-centered system damaging to their prospects, especially in comparison to other universities that have let grade-inflation run rampant. "I could have gotten a 5.0 at Duke but have to settle for a 3.0 at MIT," the typical argument runs. Let me address this concern.

I find it hard to believe that any respectable graduate school or company would not, after looking at one's cumulative GPA, take into account class rank or class average compared to those of other universities. In addition, a student's profile includes letters of recommendation and extracurricular involvement, not just a GPA.

MIT should not compromise academic integrity for grade inflation; students do not pay tuition at schools to be fed good grades like bottled baby food. They come to earn an education. If MIT made all of its classes C-centered, companies, graduate schools, and medical schools would adjust to the Institute's higher rigor and caliber of students.

Such a change would be logical: the C is halfway between the F and the A, and deserves to be the average student's class grade. I have heard that some classes require at least a C to pass on to the next course; in those cases, the standard for passing should be lowered to the D.

Having learned in elementary school that a F is failing, a D passing, a C average, a B good, and an A excellent, I was shocked to discover most of my classes at MIT are B-centered. Rather than relent to inflation's pressures and excesses, MIT can take this opportunity to initiate a policy that would place it at the forefront of schools and reiterate its commitment to academic excellence. The correct policy, I believe, would be to return to a C-centered system.