Rethinking Grades, Part 1

During this week of unexpected time off due to snow days, I found myself thinking about grades. This time of the semester, faculty can submit early warnings, especially as we see which students are trending toward unsatisfactory performance or risking failure due to attendance. For students, the wakeup call comes now. I hope they will use the two weeks before spring break to refocus and recommit. The time off also gave me time to read two pieces juxtaposed this week, Chronicle Vitae‘s “Dear Student, No, I Won’t Change the Grade you Deserve” and “College Grade Inflation Means B is the New C+,” Allison Kite’s report for the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire republished in the Commercial Appeal.

As a professor, I feel solidarity with the professors and instructors quoted in the Chronicle Vitae piece. Grading presents the most challenging and most frustrating part of my job. In first-year writing courses, some students face a steep incline to adjust to college expectations. For work that might be satisfactory and meet an assignments minimal guidelines in addressing its purpose, students will receive grades and expect A-level grades for completing the assignment. In some cases, like the professors cited in both the Vitae and Kite pieces, I agree that student demands for better grades can be tied to feelings of academic entitlement. However, I also want to steer away from a belief that only students are at fault. Seeing the ways students in grades as early as kindergarten and first grade are prepared for and measured by high-stakes testing makes me realize that we have conditioned students from a young age to see their grades and test scores as measurements of their potential and worth. Moreover, state and university-level financial aid policies and scholarship programs often tie rigorous grade requirements to renewal of scholarships and grants. Students often find themselves in a position where satisfactory isn’t satisfactory enough. For universities–public and private–that are increasingly reliant on tuition, the pressure to retain students is also real.

In my own courses, I am careful to outline grade criteria and, in first-year writing courses, to offer significant amounts of low-stakes work (I think of these assignments as practice) that help students learn and rehearse the skills needed for larger projects (if the lower-stakes work are the practice or rehearsal, then the larger projects are the games or recitals). Students who diligently complete the lower stakes in-class and out-of-class work and who participate during class discussions and workshops can boost their course grade enough to pull them into the next grade range. My own teaching philosophy demands that I recognize that all writers (first-year college students, seniors, Ph.D. candidates, assistant professors, and others) are always developing writers who can improve; therefore, students who take development and improvement seriously should be recognized. A student who hits a ceiling of high C-level grades on composition projects should have (and, in my courses, does have) the opportunity to earn a B in the course.  Is this grade inflation? I don’t view it that way. On major projects, students earn the grades they earn based on available grade criteria. But the course is about the process of learning and not only the products of writing.

In upper-level courses in American literature and cultural studies, I often find myself trying to push students away from worrying about each grade and toward embracing the learning process. Although their performance in the course must be measured with a grade at the end of the semester, I have loftier goals for these courses: I want students to become critical thinkers and engaged citizens who will be able to adapt to a changing world and offer creative ideas for improving the communities around them. That’s not an outcome I can grade; rather, it’s an investment in the future. For those courses, I will often, as a significant portion (25-30%) of the final course grade assign a series of response papers. Typically, my practice is to assign 9 and the students highest 5 grades count. If a student writes nine, then the four lowest grades get dropped. If a student writes five, then all five count.Again, the goal of these assignments is to encourage students to embrace the learning process and to learn from repeated rehearsal of their ideas in these papers. Do students who sometimes write only five complain about their final course grade?  Yes. Is that frustrating? Extremely so.

Despite these student-centered approaches to teaching, I often feel pressured to monitor my own grades for grade inflation. However, I am increasingly aware that it is the system itself that does not work, especially in a system where satisfactory often means not good enough when it comes to scholarships. Kite traces the now over six decade increase in average GPA:

Many who expect more reward for the same or less work are getting it in the form of grade inflation. The average GPA climbed to 3.11 in 2007, from 2.52 in the 1950s, according to research by Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke University professor who compiled data from more than 220 universities.

A student with a 2.52 GPA would exist between satisfactory and good performance on a traditional 4.0 scale. By definition, “satisfactory” refers to something that is good enough for a particular purpose. In beginning to work through the following ideas, I want to note that these issues are in no way particular to my own institution or state. Rather, we face a structural problem in higher education and state and federal legislation.

No HOPE for Good Enough: Grades and Financial Aid

Hope Scholarship Renewal

Tennessee Hope Scholarship Renewal Criteria

In Tennessee, students who meet minimum ACT and high school GPA requirements are eligible for the Tennessee HOPE Scholarship, a program funded through the state lottery to expand college access and promote an educated workforce. Students attending 4-year universities, public or private, can receive up to $16,000 over four years to be applied to their college costs. Now reconfigured due to the Tennessee Promise free community college plan, the HOPE Scholarship  will pay $3500 per year for a student’s first two years at a 4-year institution and $4500 over the next two. Therefore, students face increased pressure to maintain the scholarship over four years to receive the entire benefit. The criteria (screen-captured here from the Tennessee HOPE website) require that students need to maintain a 3.0 cumulative GPA during their junior and senior years. Therefore, students must maintain a B average, which signifies Good Performance. Even after a student’s first semester, a average (2.0), which signifies Satisfactory Performance, would disqualify a student from HOPE Scholarship Renewal. Students can only regain the award once.

For many students in Tennessee, especially first-generation college students and those from working class households, the loss of $9000-12500 over the final 2-3 years of college represents the difference between graduating and dropping out. For these same students, college graduation marks a significant opportunity to change their socioeconomic status and outlook. Paul Tough’s “Who Gets to Graduate?” articulates the importance of a four-year college degree for these students:

The data show that today, more than ever, the most powerful instrument of economic mobility for low-income Americans is a four-year college degree. If a child is born into a family in the lowest economic quintile (meaning a family that earns $28,000 or less), and she doesn’t get a college degree, she has only a 14 percent chance of winding up in one of the top two quintiles, and she has a 45 percent chance of never making it out of that bottom bracket. But if she does earn a four-year degree, her prospects change completely. Suddenly, there is a 40 percent chance that she’ll make it into one of the top two quintiles—and just a 16 percent chance that she’ll remain stuck at the bottom.

Tough’s essay outlined best practices for helping at-risk students adapt to college and for ensuring their retention and success. Most universities have to do more for these students. Across Tennessee, many students may never make it to their second year of college. By recent measures, 60% of Tennessee students lose their HOPE scholarship during their first semester of college [“Tennessee Scholars,” ref].

Some of these students certainly are not performing well enough to maintain financial aid, though I think it is important to remember that students who begin college with 0.0 GPAs often find their way. My concern, however, is for the students who are performing at or near satisfactory level (measured by a 2.0 GPA) and yet not deemed to be “good enough” for the particular purpose of maintaining a scholarship intended to promote college graduation.

By setting the bar to maintain the Tennessee Hope Scholarship at first above a  B- and then at a B average (3.0) on a 4.0 scale, Tennessee HOPE makes a B the new C. For students, then, the pressure to get better than satisfactory grades is significant. It can mean the difference between having to take on thousands in additional student loans or having to leave college. For universities, retaining this students can mean to difference between financial health and budget shortfalls.

What Should Be Done?

I have written this post as a hasty response to the Chronicle Vitae and Allison Kite pieces I mention in the intro. I don’t have the answers here, so I see this post as an anticipatory proposal for my own future inquiry. Here’s what I know:

  • Ideally, Tennessee HOPE and similar scholarship programs would revise their GPA requirements so that satisfactory does men good enough for maintaining the scholarship. I’m not counting on that happening and neither are you.
  • We have to acknowledge that although academic entitlement is part of the problem that it is not the whole problem. Let’s move beyond blaming the students for the problem. In some cases, they are the victims of poor standards.
  • Universities have to do more to do more to help low-income, minority, and/or first generation students adapt to college expectations.

However, all of these “solutions” are both partial and insufficient in addressing a larger structural problem. If indeed the B is the new C+ and if scholarship programs will continue to expect good performance rather than satisfactory, then we might be beyond the time to rethink the entire 4.0 grading scale. Certainly, others are thinking about and, in some cases, doing this already. But I am going to save their ideas and my own for future posts. When will that be? I don’t know yet. I can’t always count on 3 snow days to free up some time. But I will write about it more here and, perhaps, on The Whole Horse Project.

As a final note here, I want to give kudos to Eir-Anne Edgar, a Ph.D. candidate and friend of mine at the University of Kentucky, who highlighted labor issues for graduate students in her “Dear Student” letter in the Vitae piece. The time and demands of grading and student evaluations on graduate students and contingent faculty cannot be overlooked as part of this topic.

One thought on “Rethinking Grades, Part 1

  1. This is really great, Jeff. I wasn’t aware of all the details of the HOPE program, which I think you’ve demonstrated convincingly here is at least one of the local causes for good-but-not-good-enough pressures on students (and the faculty who grade them). Those pressures are real and material for students, to be sure, but they’re also real and material for contingent faculty (something you hinted at near the end and I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts about soon!).

    I have a lot more I’d like to say about this, but I need to think on it a bit more. I’ll prob post something on my own blog in reply. In the meantime, THANKS for this.

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