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Committee proposes major overhaul of grading system
STANFORD -- Stanford students and faculty seem likely to be facing an overhaul of the grading system that will reinstitute a failing grade, shift the add-course and drop-course deadlines and limit students' ability to retake classes for higher grades.
It also would provide a transcript that is more a "historical record" of courses taken than the current "record of achievement."
The most thorough reform of Stanford's grading system since the early 1970s appears to be on track for approval in late May by the Faculty Senate. If endorsed, it could go into effect as early as next fall.
Little faculty opposition arose Thursday, April 28, when Gail Mahood, professor of geological and environmental sciences and chair of the Committee on Academic Appraisal and Achievement, presented recommendations for the grading overhaul based on a faculty survey and a detailed study of grading trends.
Mahood began by saying that, contrary to popular belief, the focus of her committee's work is not about "bringing back the F."
"When they were recorded, failing grades were very rare," she said, "and we expect that they would be in the future."
Too much emphasis is placed on grades, she said. "As soon as you start talking about grades as rewards or punishments, all is lost."
It is better, she said, to view grades primarily as a form of communication to students and the world at large.
Mahood said her committee is interested in reversing a steady decline in the number of B's, C's and D's that professors give out.
"D's have become extremely rare, and at its present rate of decline, one can predict the extinction of the beleaguered C grade in the year 2004," she said, drawing laughs.
Stanford axed the D and F in 1970 during a liberal trend that also produced substantial loosening of curricular requirements. The grading and curricular changes grew out of the broad-based, three-year Study of Education at Stanford. That reform also saw introduction of the pass/no credit option, and the shift to an achievement transcript rather than a historical record of all courses taken.
Few changes have been made since then. The D was reinstated in 1975. And, with relatively little opposition, the Faculty Senate in 1992 liberalized the drop-course and course- retake policies.
For the past two years, students have been able to drop a course with no penalty even on the day of the final exam. The retake policy was changed to expunge from the record the first attempt at a course. The grade and units are now assigned only the second or, if appropriate, third time a student completes a course.
In the year-and-a-half that her committee has been studying grading practices, it became clear that what was at stake, Mahood said, was "the sensible use of precious academic resources, the integrity of courses as learning processes, and plain old honesty in reporting results - a large part of what universities are supposed to be about."
To strengthen these principles, the committee made these major recommendations:
Students currently may add a course late in the seventh week and drop a class without penalty on the day of the final.
The deadline for declaring that a course is being taken on a satisfactory/no credit basis would be extended from the third week to the sixth week of the quarter.
Students would be allowed to retake courses in which they received satisfactory grades, but both grades would appear on the transcript and the second occurrence would show zero units.
The committee proposes a one-year transition in which students could retake once any course taken before implementation of the policy, regardless of grade, and have the original grade removed.
A mass of data
In a 50-page report replete with tables and charts, Mahood's committee sets forth the results of an extensive 1993 survey of faculty views on grading, a review of statistical data on past distribution of grades, a discussion of the committee's proposed changes in grading policy, and suggestions on possible actions by a future Committee on Academic Appraisal and Achievement.
Mahood drew accolades from fellow senators when Bob Simoni, chair of biological sciences, praised her for a "spectacular report."
Summarizing the history of grade distribution at Stanford, Mahood said that the proportion of A's and B's rose from 77 percent in 1968-69, before elimination of the D and F, to 92 percent in 1973-74. Restoration of the D in 1975 led to a slight decrease in the proportion of A's and B's.
Aside from those changes, the increase in proportion of high grades over time has been relatively small, she said. However, citing data since 1986, she showed that there has been upward creep of the average grade over time, both for undergraduates and graduate students. "All divisions and schools, with the possible exception of Earth Sciences, show inflationary trends to one degree or another," she said.
In 1992-93, the mostly commonly assigned grade was A. The median letter grade in undergraduate courses was A-; it was A at the graduate level. The C was given out only 9 percent of the time to undergraduates and 3 percent to graduate students.
There are significant differences in grading practices among schools and divisions within Humanities and Sciences, she said.
At the undergraduate level, the natural sciences and earth sciences assign the smallest proportion of A's and the largest proportion of C's. On the other hand, more than 55 percent of letter grades assigned by the humanities and language/literature departments are A's. They assign about half as many C's as do other H&S divisions, Mahood said.
Faculty survey results
Turning to results of the 1993 faculty survey on attitudes about grading, Mahood said that there was no consensus on a preferred grading system, but that about three-quarters of the respondents said they would prefer a transcript that is more of a "historical record."
About the same percentage said they favored recording failing performances on a student's transcript. Mahood said that "this result echoes those of a 1988 survey, in which a majority of the faculty listed a grading system including the F grade as their preferred system."
Opinion on recording the failing grade varies widely by school, Mahood said, with the business and law schools nearly unanimous in their support, but only 30 percent favoring it in education.
The survey also showed that current policies on satisfactory/no credit grading and course retakes are not popular with faculty.
In comments at the end of the questionnaire, many faculty, she said, wrote of their desire for a more historical transcript. They also expressed concern about late course adds and drops, about the paradoxical incentive for students to fail to avoid bad marks on their transcripts, about course retake patterns, and about the difficulty that potential employers and graduate admissions committees find with the current achievement-oriented transcript.
Goals of proposed policy
The main goal of the committee's deliberations, Mahood said, was to "produce a grading policy that encouraged sensible use of precious academic resources."
Late course drops and retaken courses are costly to the university, she said, citing a 1992 letter from the chair of chemistry estimating that the department was spending $85,000 a year for extra teaching assistants to accommodate students who were retaking courses or who drop them late in the quarter.
"But more than the dollar costs," Mahood said, "the committee is concerned with productive use of student and faculty time and the integrity of the course as a learning process." Late course drops and frequent course retakes are a "waste of faculty teaching time and student learning time."
Time spent in marginal improvement of grades has a significant costs in lost learning opportunities, and a demoralizing effect on students taking the course for the first time, she said.
The proposed system would "encourage students to choose courses wisely and at the appropriate level." It would promote integrity by requiring students to "commit their efforts to courses early in the quarter and sustain that commitment by discouraging late withdrawals."
A second goal of the new policy is to produce a transcript that "reports the results of student course activity honestly," Mahood said, while providing some academic forgiveness for error in judgment and the overwhelming pressure some students feel to earn high grades.
A third goal was to expand the range of grades available. In the absence of the F, "the D has taken the place of the F in being the grade to avoid at all costs."
"Our fond hope," she said, is that a decompression of the grading scale "will make the C a respectable grade again."
While the committee's efforts have been characterized by newspapers as an effort to "bring back the F, our goals are captured much better in this regard by the motto 'Save the C.' "
The burden of the proposed policy would fall not only on students but also on the faculty, "some of whom will have to pay greater attention to the organization of their courses," Mahood said.
The proposed policy reconfirms the implicit contract between student and instructor, she said, with the student choosing courses carefully and pursuing them seriously and the instructor providing timely information on the course and assessing student performance early and often.
This mutual commitment somehow got lost in the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s. It is that sense of commitment that "we hope we are, in some way, reinvigorating by our proposals to you today," Mahood told the senate.
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