Archive for Monday, April 15, 2013

A or A-minus? KU students want a straight answer

April 15, 2013


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All semester, Kansas University freshman MacKenzie Oatman and her roommate had studied together for their introductory psychology classes.

The two had enrolled in different sections of the same course for their first semester of college, and they were even using the same book. As far as they could tell, their tests were similar, too.

But one thing was different. When their final grades came in, they told each other how they’d done. Oatman had scored a 92 percent for the course, and her roommate got a 90.

For Oatman's roommate, this was great news. A 90 was all she needed for an A grade. But Oatman got a surprise: Her 92 had earned her an A-minus — the only blemish on an otherwise perfect first semester. She fell just short of a 4.0 grade-point average.

“That one hurt a lot,” said Oatman, who’s now a sophomore. “I’m still a little bit bitter about it.”

This situation, where Oatman could earn a better percentage grade than her roommate but a lower letter grade, is possible because instructors in KU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences have the choice whether to grade their students on the plain A-B-C-D-F scale or on a scale that includes plus or minus grades. That means that unless a department’s faculty votes to stick to one scale or the other, things might be inconsistent among different classes — or, in Oatman’s situation, different sections of the same class.

Oatman, from Overland Park, is now part of KU’s Student Senate, and she’s one of a group of student government leaders pushing for a change. They’d like for each department in the College — where about two-thirds of KU students are enrolled, and even more take introductory courses to fill general-education credits — to pick a standard policy: Use plus/minus, or don’t, for every single course.

For those leaders, at least, it’s not that they want to do away with plus/minus grading, said student body vice president Brandon Woodard. In fact, he said he prefers that scale.

“We don’t have any strong position either way,” Woodard said. “It’s just that students would like to see some consistency within the department.”

A small difference looms large

Perhaps the difference between an A and an A-minus sounds trivial, but for some students it can seem huge. For instance, Oatman is aiming to go to law school after she graduates, and GPA, along with LSAT scores, is a big factor in law admissions.

When she notched that A-minus in her psychology class, it meant she earned 3.7 grade points for each of those credit hours instead of the perfect 4. Her GPA for that semester, she says, fell to about a 3.93.

“Every bit counts,” Oatman said.

CLAS policy changed in fall 2008 to give instructors the option to use a plus/minus system if they like. Before that, some other schools on campus were already doing the same.

Student Body President Hannah Bolton said she and others in the KU Student Senate had heard complaints like Oatman’s for several years now, so it’s one of the issues she and Woodard chose to campaign on last spring. She and the other student leaders are focusing on the College because of how many students go through its introductory courses, which often offer quite a few sections and therefore a bigger opportunity for consistency.

“It’s a lot bigger deal than it may seem,” Bolton said.

Bolton and Woodard have pitched their idea for consistent policies for each department to CLAS leaders, including Dean Danny Anderson.

Anderson said he agrees, now that faculty have had the option of which system to use for several years, that it might be time to take a closer look at how grading is working.

“We’re actively working to strengthen and redesign a lot of our first-year courses,” Anderson said, “and so as we do that, this will be a part of some of the considerations put before faculty members.”

He said that as the College undergoes that effort in the coming months, he would plan to ask department chairs their thoughts. He said some faculty prefer the standard letter grade system, and others think the additional options the plus/minus system provides.

“I think some instructors think that it is helpful to be able to be more specific about the level of performance,” Anderson said.

Sorting out the systems

The first step, he said, would be to determine what’s happening in each of the College’s departments. Right now it has no record of which ones might be using both systems and which ones have voted to pick one to use uniformly.

The Spanish and Portuguese department, for instance, is one whose faculty voted to adopt the plus/minus system for every course.

Department chairman Stuart Day said in an email that the policy is especially helpful for the introductory Spanish courses in which many students earn their foreign-language credits, and where the department uses common exams in each of the different sections to make sure everything is even. The faculty decided they’d prefer to be able to reward students differently for say, an 80 percent grade and an 88.

The psychology department, which offers a number of different courses that fill general-education requirements, allows instructors to choose their grading system.

But chairwoman Ruth Ann Atchley said she agreed that a consistent policy would be a good idea for students’ sake, and it might be time to take a look at that possibility now that the plus/minus option has been around for a while.

“I can see value in this,” Atchley said. “I think consistency is a desirable thing, especially for my department,” where quite a few classes offer multiple sections each semester.

But whether it happens, she said, will depend on how the feelings of the department’s faculty. Faculty value their academic freedom, and a top-down edict would not go over well.

“I would be keen to have that conversation,” Atchley said, “but if my faculty chose to vote to have no policy, I would respect that option as well.” There’s no telling how a vote might go, she said.

Woodard said the students have no desire to trample on academic freedom, so they’re not aiming for the College to order faculty around. Rather, he said, they hope to make their case to faculty in hopes that they’ll decide more consistency is a good idea.

The College has a number of other issues to think about at the moment, not the least of which are new curriculum requirements and a possible budget cut for 2013-14. But Anderson said this will be an issue on the table.

“We’ll get to the point where this is a topic of conversation and that type of a consideration,” Anderson said, “but we’re just not quite there yet.”

For her part, Atchley said she prefers a straight letter-grade system, because she doesn’t like that the plus/minus system offers no A-plus option. And she’ll often hear from students who would prefer plus/minus.

“It is a topic of conversation the start of every semester, pretty much,” Atchley said, and sometimes students will try to “negotiate” for the system that will benefit them. And as long as students’ eyes are on their GPAs, that may be something no new policy will ever change.


WilburM 5 years, 2 months ago

Great example to demonstrate the inconsistency here. I think the plus/minus system works well, and allows for differentiation. But the idea of one student earning a higher score and receiving a lower grade in (allegedly) the same course reflects both the appearance of injustice and, in all probability, a real injustice.

Bob Forer 5 years, 2 months ago

Children going to bed hungry in a country of plenty is a real injustice. An innocent driver being killed by a drunk is a real injustice. The example above is hardly an injustice.

Over the course of a four year degree, and assuming she received straight As otherwise, the difference between an A and an A- in one three hour course is 4.00 vs. 3.99. Either one of those two GPAs from a second rate school like KU will not get her into a top law school unless she has very good LSAT scores, and if she does score well on her LSATs, the one hundred of a percentage point will have absolutely no bearing on her acceptance. Same thing for second tier law schools. In other words, in the larger scheme of things it means absolutely NOTHING.

There is a subjective element to all grading. The MCAT, LSAT, GRE, etc , on the other hand, are completely objective and allow comparisons between students. Simply put, it all evens out in the wash.

The issue raised is really a non-issue, and simply demonstrates that today's students are more concerned about grades than they are about learning.

mom_of_three 5 years, 2 months ago

I think the students make perfect sense. If the same course is going to be taught by different instructors, the grading system should be the same across the board.
And grades can make a big difference when it comes to jobs and graduate schools, event 1/100th of a point.

Leslie Swearingen 5 years, 2 months ago

The article says that they studied quite a bit. I got the impression that the students do value learning. They simply want consistency in grading the tests that show what they have learned. It makes sense. The girl with the lower grade got a higher score because of the section she was in. That doesn't make sense.

patkindle 5 years, 2 months ago

this is a great way for the student to learn that life is not always fair , and it doenst get any better

Leslie Swearingen 5 years, 2 months ago

There is so such thing as "life". People make decisions that affect other people. Those decisions can be changed.

SnakeFist 5 years, 2 months ago

Instructors who teach different sections of the same course should have enough professionalism to coordinate these sorts of things. Academic freedom is important, but so is consistency, and this sort of arbitrary inconsistency undermines people's respect for the entire system. After all, if grades and GPAs are so arbitrarily determined from one section or instructor to another, then, people will ask, how important can they really be?

SnakeFist 5 years, 2 months ago

I also think there's an equal protection problem. A professor at a public school is an agent of the government. Can you imagine what things would be like if every public employee could create their own evaluation scheme? For example, we would never allow employees of the Social Security Administration to set different qualifying standards for receiving benefits.

Obviously, academic freedom is important and means something, I just don't think it means different standards for otherwise identically situated people - that's the definition of a violation of the right to equal treatment.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 2 months ago

And that is the very definition of making a mountain out of a molehill.

SnakeFist 5 years, 2 months ago

You clearly haven't taken classes at a university lately. Tuition is ridiculously high, and grades mean more now than ever before - as discussed in the article, students' futures are literally at stake. At the very least, students should expect consistency and fairness, not arbitrary variation depending on which instructor they have or which section they're in.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 2 months ago

No matter how high tuition is, no matter if futures are at stake, raising this to the level of a federal case, a Constitutional case based on equal protection, is indeed making a mountain out of a molehill. But if you don't believe me, run that argument by a judge. I just hope that while he laughs your case out the door, he also assesses you court costs.

SnakeFist 5 years, 2 months ago

If you think that the low significance (in your opinion) of a case will get it tossed, then you clearly either haven't been to law school or have never been in court. Parties determine significance, not courts - and low significance cases are usually settled, not thrown out.

Bob Forer 5 years, 2 months ago

I agree with one on this one 100% jhawkinsf.

Bob Forer 5 years, 2 months ago

No equal protection problem at all, as there is not evidence of discriminatory intent.

Further, the two are not "identically situated people." Each student had a different instructor.

My guess is that you either received a C or C- in Constitutional Law, depending on who your instructor was.

SnakeFist 5 years, 2 months ago

My guess is that you didn't go to law school at all. Perhaps taking the wrong sections from the wrong instructors left you with a GPA too low to get in.

First, the fact that each had a different instructor is completely irrelevent. That's like saying different clerks at the DMV can have different standards for issuing licenses - and its okay because they're different clerks.

Second, I have no idea what their intent is, but I do know that arbitrarily differential outcomes is indicative (though, admittedly, not dispositive) of an equal protection violation. I also know that that there is no rational basis for treating students in different sections of the same class differently.

Bob Forer 5 years, 2 months ago

Matter of fact, I am a law school graduate, and was in fact, in the top ten percent of my class and a member of Law Review/ I don't find it productive to argue the finer points of constitutional law with a neophyte. .

Have a good day.

BorderRat 5 years, 2 months ago

I thought that assigning letter grades was considered taboo. Just give them all a bag of orange slices, a juice box and a participation trophy.

May Soo 5 years, 2 months ago

I used to have an instructor in high school who gives C for an A, that really messed up my GPA.

parrothead8 5 years, 2 months ago

All of my professors used to give out a syllabus detailing if they would use the plus/minus system. Either they aren't doing that anymore, or students aren't reading them.

mom_of_three 5 years, 2 months ago

Did students EVER read a syllabus? And even if she did, it still doesn't dismiss the fact that different sections of the same course are graded differently.

voevoda 5 years, 2 months ago

Oatman earned a grade of A-. So did her roommate. However, her roommate's grade got recorded as an A because the instructor bunched A+, A, and A- together. Just like Oatman's instructor bunched 92, 90, and 91 together to make an A-.

Oatman is whining as though her grade was arbitrarily lowered. It wasn't. Her roommate's grade was arbitrarily raised.

Maybe Oatman just wants to get an A for A- work?

Topple 5 years, 2 months ago

Maybe Oatman doesn't want her friend who performed worse than her to receive a higher grade?

bearded_gnome 5 years, 2 months ago

The first step, he said, would be to determine what’s happening in each of the College’s departments. Right now it has no record of which ones might be using both systems and which ones have voted to pick one to use uniformly.

---I'd certainly say so!

Shardwurm 5 years, 2 months ago

To get them prepared for post-Education life we should follow the old analogy:

Her A- would be 'taxed' 30 percent and she would get a C for the course. The person with the 'F' would receive the benefit of 20 percent of that and get a 'D' and pass. The other 10 percent would be distributed amongst the 'D' students.

Sounds fair to me.

bearded_gnome 5 years, 2 months ago

is it really too much to ask that within one department (psych) that the same system be used consistently? c'mon! this isn't really academic freedom, not really telling profs what to teach or research!

gatekeeper 5 years, 2 months ago

I wasn't in the course, so just speculation here. Teachers will use the +/- system to increase or decrease the grade depending on how much a student participates in class, shows up to class, etc... Maybe this girl always showed up, took her tests, but rarely participated in any discussions and maybe essay questions could have been answered in a little more detail. There are reasons why teachers can use plus minus grades.

This girl should get used to the fact that life is indeed, not fair. Have watched less qualified get hired for more and keep jobs because of who they are. Many that work hard don't get rewarded when others do. College isn't just for learning facts in classes, it's partly to toughen you up to the real world.

If her GPA was so important, then maybe just getting a 92 (which in my classes at KU was an A-), then maybe she should have worked harder to get a 94-95 and guarantee that A.

Ahhh, first world problems.

Betty Bartholomew 5 years, 2 months ago

I don't think it's unreasonable to ask for uniform grading systems, not just within one school, but across all schools. When you look at a total GPA, a +/- system in CLAS and non-+/- system in a business school course are going to create the same sort of issue. I don't know why the University allows two different scales to be used to start with.

Personally, I think letter grades and GPAs should be done away with entirely. How hard it is to see and interpret that the student made 100%, 97%, or 50% of the total grade? Even if one wanted to stick with GPAs, scaling 4.0 to 100%, 3.0 to 75%, 2.0 to 50%, 1.0 to 25%, and 0 to 0 doesn't seem that difficult.

That whole curved-grade thing shouldn't be allowed, either. Just grade people for the work they've done, quit comparing them to each other - their grades will speak for themselves.

Bob Forer 5 years, 2 months ago

The is a major structural problem with your suggestion. Only tests are graded on a percentage basis, based on the number of correct answers. Instructors and professors grade papers on the letter system. There are some classes that have just tests, some with just papers, and some with both papers and tests. Correlation between letters and numbers are impossible because of the either/or and hybrid methods of evaluation.

SnakeFist 5 years, 2 months ago

Really, Sycho, now you claim to know how all instructors grade their tests and papers? Essay exams and papers can both be qualitatively or quantitatively graded. The only thing required to assign a quantitative grade to an essay exam or paper is a point-based rubric. There is no insurmountable "structural problem" with bethlang1998's suggestion.

bevy 5 years, 2 months ago

This was the part of the story that really caught my eye: " Faculty value their academic freedom, and a top-down edict would not go over well. "

Yeah, I really hate it when my boss tells me what to do, too! Sheesh...

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