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The Facts Behind The Grading Experiment

MIT is coming to the end of a three-year experiment in the application of plus/minus modifiers to its letter grades. A subcommittee of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program is surveying students about their perceptions of letter grades, both in theory and in practice. In order to get informed feedback, it's important that students receive accurate information about the experiment.

Therefore, it's unfortunate that the column by Naveen Sunkavally '01 ["Making Grades Meaningful," Dec. 2] is largely uninformed by the facts. In particular, there is one glaring error in the column and one serious misrepresentation of the past history of the experiment.

First, the error: Sunkavally "learned in elementary school that an F is failing, a D is passing, a C average, a B good, and an A excellent." While this may be the interpretation of letter grades in elementary school, it is not MIT's interpretation. The definition of letter grades at MIT is clearly stated in the MIT Bulletin. An A denotes "exceptionally good performance , a foundation of extensive knowledge, and a skillful use of concepts and/or materials." A B denotes "good performance , a good understanding of the subject matter, and an ability to handle the problems and materials encountered in the subject." A C denotes "adequate performance" and "adequate preparation for moving on to more advanced work in the field." A D indicates "minimally acceptable" performance demonstrating " deficiencies serious enough to make it inadvisable to proceed further in the field without additional work." The good old F is still in knee pants.

The Rules of the Faculty further declare that the grades "are not rigidly related to any numerical scores or distribution function."

One might respond, "Rules, Schmules. Everyone knows that some faculty members curve grades and that most faculty and students have never read page 71 of the Bulletin." Fair enough. However, I think you'd be surprised to discover how many faculty members work to bring their grading mechanisms into alignment with these descriptions, particularly when it comes to drawing lines between grades.

Therefore, the whole issue of where grades are centered is beside the point. A C is not halfway between an A and F. Furthermore, as a matter of fact, MIT hasn't experienced the same grade inflation that has infected other universities over the past three decades. That is no doubt because the grades as defined at MIT provide faculty with a better anchor of performance those at most other universities.

Regardless of how faculty members might actually assign grades in a mechanical sense, the interesting thing about MIT's formal grading system is that it corresponds nicely with how we formally structure most of our education. Subjects are cumulative, especially in the early reaches of the undergraduate program. The grading system records not only how a student performed within the confines of a particular subject, but also how well prepared that student is to go on to the next.

Second, the misrepresentation: Sunkavally suggests that faculty are aching to assign plus/minus modifiers to grades while students are cowering in fear at the prospect of being denied admission to graduate school on account of a passel of A's being turned into A-'s. Almost three years ago, when the idea of intermediate grades was first being considered by the Committee on Academic Performance, the committee conducted a survey of undergraduates, asking them their opinions about grading systems with and without intermediate grade provisions. About half the respondents favored the current system and about half favored some form of intermediate grades. Later in that school year, the idea of an intermediate grades experiment was brought to a faculty meeting for discussion and a straw poll. The minutes of the April 1995 faculty meeting record that "the yes' vote won by a visible though not overwhelming margin." Subsequently, the CUP (which has the right to suspend the rules of the faculty to undertake educational experiments) voted to institute the current three-year experiment in intermediate grades.

While the alignment of opinions may have changed a lot in the intervening two years, I doubt it. There is no evidence that at any time in the discussion of intermediate grades, faculty and students have lined up on opposite sides of the issue. Some of each have wanted pluses and minuses, some of each haven't.

While I share much of Sunkavally's skepticism about the workability of having intermediate grades only on the internal transcript, one thing must be said in their defense: For faculty members who want to take their advising responsibilities seriously (don't laugh: there are some), knowing whether a C was "almost a B" or "almost a D" is important to know when consulting with a student about her future subject selections.

Are intermediate grades good or bad? Who knows? When dealing with what is essentially an arbitrary feature of educational policy, it's unwise to change things unless a clear and compelling advantage can be shown to the innovation. Otherwise, you'll be forever chasing educational reform rabbits. For that reason, I've always been leery of marching into the land of intermediate grades. Whatever the right answer is, this is undoubtedly true: It's always better to actually know what the issues are and who's lined up pro and con than to conjure up wild speculations.

Charles Stewart III

Associate Professor of Political Science