Kendrick Baker: GW needs guidelines for grade distribution

We’ve all had the sinking feeling of looking at the semester grade for a class, then trying to calculate what poor exam or assignment would have brought down the letter on our transcript. It could have been that time you stayed up for 36 hours straight before an exam, the paper you decided not to edit or the pop quiz you took while you had the flu. Or, your grade might be low because your professor’s distribution of grades is significantly different than GW’s average.

Curves are a vital tool for professors to ensure that the distribution of As, Bs and Cs within classes is consistent with other classes at the University and around the country. By raising students’ grades to a desired average, professors ensure that students are not penalized for tests that are overly challenging.

As any student will tell you, there is a huge disparity in grade distribution across departments – especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, where GPAs tend to be lower. Even within the classes that I’ve taken, each professor calculates his or her own curve differently, since the University doesn’t have a specific policy on grade distribution. Instead, the University should provide guidelines to ensure that grade curves are at least similar across the board for every class at GW.

According to research conducted by former Duke University professor Stuart Rojstaczer, grade inflation has reached endemic proportions at the national level. In 1950, a 2.5 GPA was the average for students at private universities. In 2007, the average GPA at private institutions was a 3.30. The myth that a C is an average grade has long since been replaced by a reality in which almost 45 percent of grades given in 2008 were As. In 2011, the average undergraduate GPA at GW was 3.26, making GW comparable to other universities.

Among courses with curves at GW, professors’ ideal grade distributions vary significantly. As a result, students commonly use sites like RateMyProfessors to determine which professors will have grade distributions that will favorably impact their GPAs. For many students, selecting classes based on professors with ratings that suggest easy As – instead of based on course material or teaching acumen – detracts from their educational experiences. Professors who grade harshly or don’t curve are similarly avoided.

To fix this problem, officials should publish a set of non-mandatory guidelines for grade distribution. This way, professors would have a base from which to create a grading policy that would be comparable to other classes.

These guidelines would establish basic expectations and a rough distribution for grades, rather than one that requires an exact distribution of As through Fs. This would allow all professors at GW to be on the same page regarding grading, while maintaining the important autonomy regarding student evaluation that professors currently enjoy. This autonomy would be especially important in more subjective grading.

Of course, in some situations, professors need to be able to diverge from a certain grade distribution due to an unusually qualified or unqualified class. But having a unified set of guidelines would at least make expectations more clear.

With Ivy League schools leading the way, grade inflation appears to be a permanent phenomenon in higher education. Because average GPAs are increasing, graduate school admissions officers must consider measures like GPA by looking at those figures in the context of a student’s graduating class. Thus, the actual GPA figure is meaningless unless compared the GPAs of a student’s peers.

The problem at GW arises not within specific departments or for the University as a whole, but rather for individual professors with grade distributions that are lower than average for the school or department.

Employers and graduate admissions officers can use class profiles to determine relative academic performance, yet the difficulty level of individual professors is not translated in these measures. Because individual professor difficulty is not taken into account in student-class rankings, students tend to look for the least challenging professor teaching a specific course.

Plus, grade inflation can result in a larger emphasis on standardized tests like the MCAT or the LSAT. Recently, conversations about standardized tests have questioned whether they are actually representative of students’ abilities, and some schools have begun discounting them altogether.

Having the school publish a University-wide set of guidelines for grade distribution would ensure greater equality and fairness in grading across departments, and the University as a whole. It would also re-focus course selection on teacher skill, rather than individual course difficulty.

Kendrick Baker, a sophomore double-majoring in political science and economics, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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