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05/31/94

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Grading discussion focuses on course-drop deadline; vote set for June 2

STANFORD -- The Faculty Senate is expected this week to endorse a new grading policy that would limit students' ability to shop around for courses until late in the quarter and drop, without penalty, those in which they are not doing well.

The senate on May 26 began discussion about specific provisions of a proposed new policy that would shift add- and drop-deadlines to early in the quarter, reinstitute a failing grade and limit students' ability to retake classe s for higher grades.

Lacking time to complete the debate, the senate agreed to finish consideration of the issue on Thursday, June 2.

In an advisory vote last week, the senate endorsed a fourth-week drop-course deadline and a third-week add-course deadline.

Still up for consideration is a proposal to reinstitute a failing grade, which would be labeled NP - not passed - under the new system. This has generated wide media attention, although students appear far more interested in th e drop-course deadline.

Last week's senate meeting was marked by student complaints about faculty and faculty complaints about students, most of it centering on the drop deadline.

Prior to the meeting, students used electronic mail to faculty and several town meetings to advocate continuation of a liberal drop policy, which, for the last two years, has given them the option of quitting courses without pe nalty on their transcripts up to the day of the final exam.

Of the students who expressed interest in the subject, most were willing to settle for a seventh-week deadline, although some wanted the option of leaving a course during the 10th week of Stanford's 11-week quarter.

In April, the Committee on Academic Appraisal and Achievement, which is proposing the grading changes, suggested shifting both the drop and add deadlines to the third week of the quarter.

Committee Chair Gail Mahood, geological and environmental sciences, told the senate that the committee in May revised its proposal to the fourth week after several meetings with students and receipt of about 100 electronic mess ages.

Discussing student feedback that she and committee members gathered during May, Mahood said that five components of the proposed grading policy received the "lion's share of criticism." They are, in descending order of "frequen cy or ferocity":

  • Early drop deadlines.
  • Creation of the W - withdraw - notation, which would appear on a transcript if a student drops a class between the fifth and eighth weeks.
  • The lack of grandfathering current students.
  • The course retake policy.
  • Recording failing grades on the transcript.

In their communications with the committee, some students said "they are being punished for the failure of faculty to adhere to stricter grading standards, which is the root cause of grade inflation," Mahood said. Some also com plained that there was not a "symmetrical set of demands being put on the faculty to improve teaching."

Mahood told the senate that the committee's recommendations were being made in the context of "increased concern about the quality of undergraduate teaching and the academic atmosphere at Stanford." She said this concern began several years ago under then-President Donald Kennedy and continues under current President Gerhard Casper.

It is "inaccurate to characterize, as some students have, the committee's proposals as an isolated attempt to get students to clean up their act, while the faculty go on with business as usual," she said. "There are many effort s afoot," through the Commission on Undergraduate Education, "to improve teaching and the academic environment for students." The committee's proposals are consistent with the spirit of those efforts, she said.

Students manage transcripts?

At the senate meeting, several faculty members complained that students often use late course drops and course retakes to "manage" their transcripts.

Several students denied the charge, and in turn complained that many faculty do not evaluate students - in the form of midterms or graded papers - early enough in the quarter for students to know how they are doing. Students of ten do not receive evaluations until the sixth or seventh week, they said.

Mahood told the senate that the current system "allows risk-free sampling of courses and fields," with students routinely enrolling in more courses than they intend to complete.

Initially, she was disheartened to hear these patterns described, she said. "But then I realized that from their standpoint, they are consumers at a very expensive intellectual smorgasbord." For students, "it makes sense to loa d up your plate with more than you're sure you can eat and to leave something on your plate if it doesn't suit you," she said.

However, the committee wants to discourage the practice of starting the quarter with 20 units and ending it with 17, Mahood said. The committee also does not want students making drop decisions based on predicted grades, she sa id.

"Our timing of the drop deadline is purposeful; it is a reflection of our belief that a grading proposal that promotes the integrity of the learning process is one that encourages students to choose courses wisely, commit their efforts to courses early in the quarter, and sustain that commitment."

She said she did not attribute the "present student patterns of course-taking, retaking and dropping to sloth or guile." Rather, students are responding reasonably to incentives they are offered by the present system.

A four-week drop deadline is "still on the generous side," she said. "We don't consider this a Draconian measure."

Student reaction

Anietie Ekanem, incoming member of the Associated Students' Council of Presidents, told the senate that "it saddens me to sit here and hear so many people say that we are grade grubbing and we are out to fix our transcripts.

"We're here for an education," he said. "Students got here because they have shown a great deal of academic responsibility."

A seventh-week drop deadline would guarantee that students could get feedback before they commit to completing a class, Ekanem said. "I agree it could be pushed up," he said, if students were guaranteed evaluation earlier in th e quarter.

Derek Miyahara, the student-at-large delegate to the Faculty Senate, asked the faculty to think about the purpose of evaluation and whether students are entitled to have that before they decide to continue in a class.

Nawwar Kasrawi, the incoming chair of the Associated Students' Senate, said that no research has been done to show how many professors generate midterm results by the third or fourth week.

He suggested that the Committee on Academic Appraisal and Achievement extend the deadlines from the third to fourth week "just to reduce student discontent about the policy."

Mahood defended the extra week, saying that some committee members felt it gave students more opportunity to assess whether they wanted to be in a course.

Economics Professor Gavin Wright, a member of the committee, said that contrary to student statements that they do not drop courses to control their grade-point averages, "the statements we heard from students today clearly ind icate that is what they have in mind."

He said that when faculty members give C's, students drop the course, thus creating an incentive for faculty members to give A's and B's. "There is no real question that that is the case," Wright said.

Amendment defeated

The senate defeated a proposed amendment by Ron Rebholz, chair of English, that would have put the drop-course deadline at the end of the seventh week.

His suggestion was part of a detailed counterproposal developed by junior David Cohen, who attended the meeting as a guest of the senate but did not have speaking privileges.

Hoping to build support for a seventh-week drop deadline, Cohen suggested in his document that students be allowed to add courses only through the end of the third week. Faculty adopted that suggestion when Rebholz put it on th e table, but later rejected Rebholz's and Cohen's drop-course proposal.

Re-take policy

In addition to considering the failing grade at the June 2 meeting, the senate will discuss the course-retake policy.

The committee has criticized Stanford's policy, which allows a student to retake a class as many times as desired and expunge all but the last course from the transcript.

Mahood told the senate in April that most retakes are in "gatekeeper" courses in physics, math, chemistry and biology that are needed by pre-med students. She said as many as 20 percent to 30 percent of students in those course s are "retakes."

However, at last week's meeting, Rebholz cited research by Cohen showing that retakes in 1992-93 totaled about 700 out of 65,000 student courses taken (6,500 undergraduates each take approximately 10 courses per year).

That means that slightly more than 1 percent of courses are retakes, Rebholz said. "The resources of faculty are not being dramatically abused, not even mildly abused," he said.

After the meeting Cohen talked about grading practices. It is "just untrue that any significant portion of students take a lot of courses looking to save only the ones with the best grades," he said.

"If students want high grades all they have to do is take easy classes." They do not do that, he said.

Stanford is full of "overachievers" who sign up for too many units because they think they can handle the load; however, courses accelerate through the quarter, he said. "Something that seems totally reasonable at the second or fourth week will become difficult in the sixth week and unmanageable during our non-dead Dead Week."

The proposed new system would curb anyone who is abusing the system, but also "would hurt those who aren't, and that's the vast majority," he said.

A junior in international relations, Cohen said he got no midterms or major papers back before the seventh week this quarter, although he did get some quizzes back in a Russian class. The proposed policy would not affect Cohen, who presumably will graduate before it would go into effect in fall 1995. He said he developed an alternative proposal and distributed it to senators because "I'm disappointed at the way some things are being perceived and presented. I don't think it's a positive direction for the university."

Committee's concerns

Mahood said after the meeting that the motivation for changing the policy comes from "concern for the university and a sense of standards and the goals we're trying to express."

Stanford's grade distribution probably is similar to that at other elite institutions, she said. "We are not responding to concerns about our reputation. It basically is our own internal concerns and standards."

In addition to Mahood and Wright, members of the Committee on Academic Appraisal and Achievement include Jeremy Cohen, communication; Elizabeth Hansot, political science (fall and winter quarters); Van Harvey, religious studies ; Marsh McCall, classics and director of continuing studies (winter and spring quarters); Raymond McDermott, education (fall and winter quarters); Godfrey Mungal, mechanical engineering; Claude Steele, psychology (fall quarter); Pan Yo topoulos, food research; Eric Bannasch, junior in public policy; Carleen Chou, senior in economics; and Michael Witt, graduate student. Serving ex officio are Al Camarillo, associate dean of humanities and sciences; George Dekker, asso ciate dean for graduate policy; and Roger Printup, registrar. Hector Cuevas, director of the undergraduate advising center, was co-opted to serve as an unofficial advisory member this year.

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