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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.