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06/07/94

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Faculty adopts more strict grading system

STANFORD -- In the most significant overhaul of Stanford's grading system in 24 years, the Faculty Senate on Thursday, June 2, approved changes that will shift the add-course and drop-course deadlines to early in the quarter, reinstitute a failing grade, and limit students' ability to retake classes for higher grades.

The new grading policy, most of which will go into effect in fall quarter 1995, will limit opportunities for students to shop around for courses. The students also will not be able to drop courses, without penalty, late in the quarter.

The new system will produce a transcript that is more a historical record of courses taken than the current record of achievement.

The senate adopted the new, more conservative grading system on a roll-call vote with 38 ayes and three nays.

The change was proposed by the Committee on Academic Appraisal and Achievement based on a faculty survey and a detailed study of grading trends, which noted a steady decline in the number of B's, C's and D's that professors give out.

During nearly two hours of discussion and sometimes acrimonious parliamentary maneuvering on June 2, the senate defeated efforts to amend the proposal with more liberal provisions proposed by Ronald Rebholz, chair of English, and Jeffrey Koseff, civil engineering.

Gail Mahood, professor of geological and environmental sciences and chair of the Committee on Academic Appraisal and Achievement, said after the meeting that she was "very pleased" with the vote and was looking forward to returning to her role as a scientist.

The new rules, she said, "send a clear message to the students that we take the life of the mind seriously, and we were trying to come up with a grading policy that we think establishes the right incentives." She said faculty members want students to choose their courses early in the quarter, apply themselves seriously and stay with courses until the end of the quarter.

The new system will put more pressure on each faculty member to organize his or her class, she said, including issuing a well-written syllabus on the first day and providing some form of feedback earlier in the quarter.

Mahood first presented the committee's proposal to the Faculty Senate on April 28, drawing mostly praise.

Later, many students voiced unhappiness with the plan, especially a proposal to set the drop-course deadline at the end of the quarter's third week. The students preferred the seventh week, which would enable them to evaluate how well they were doing in a course after midterms or major papers. Following several town meetings with students, the committee changed the deadline to the fourth week. The senate later turned back efforts to amend that to the seventh week.

Of less interest to students was reintroduction of the failing grade. Mahood said that many students favor or are neutral about failing grades. In its discussions with students, the committee found that the issue ranked at the bottom of students' five main concerns, she said.

The lack of heavy opposition to the failing grade also showed up in a poll of 300 students by the Stanford Daily. Among graduate students, 67 percent favored the failing grade and 25 percent opposed it. Forty percent of undergraduates were in favor and 48 percent opposed the failing grade. The poll had a 5.7 percent margin of error.

Senate discussion

Senators began the June 2 discussion where they left off the week before, separately reviewing each provision of the proposed policy.

In section 2 on recording failing performances, Rebholz asked Mahood why the committee did not have the courage to use an F notation instead of NP - not passed.

Mahood responded that the university did not want to "brand students as failures." Rather, "we're trying to emphasize here the fact that during a specific 10-week period a student did not pass a particular course."

The senate then stripped from the grading proposal the term "failing performance," approving on divided voice votes two amendments by Tony Siegman, electrical engineering, that substituted "courses not passed" and similar language.

When discussion of the committee's proposal was complete, Koseff moved to substitute an alternative he had distributed a few minutes earlier.

Koseff's plan would have given students until the end of the eighth week to drop courses with no notation on their transcripts. After that, a W - withdrew - would be recorded. There would be no failing or NP grade under his plan.

James Sheehan, history and chair of the Commission on Undergraduate Education, promptly moved to table consideration of Koseff's alternative, saying it should only be considered if the committee's proposal was voted down.

On a vote of about two to one, the senate approved the tabling action, drawing fire from Nawwar Kasrawi, incoming chair of the Associated Students senate, who charged that the Faculty Senate was "not providing the full opportunity for public discussion" that had been promised.

Roger Noll, economics, also criticized the tabling, telling the senate that he intended to vote against the amendments, but that Rebholz and Koseff deserved to be heard.

Rebholz told his colleagues, "I am ashamed of this senate for not allowing Professor Koseff's substitute motion to be considered."

Sheehan said that the tabling did not prevent Rebholz and Koseff from proposing amendments. Productive discussion requires order, he said, criticizing Koseff for not submitting his alternative proposal earlier.

Amendments proposed

Rebholz then took advantage of the opening to offer amendments, first proposing to substitute Koseff's eighth-week drop deadline.

Koseff discussed statistics on course dropping that had been provided by the Registrar's Office. Of 173,000 courses taken during 1992-93, students dropped approximately 16,600 - less than 10 percent - between the second week and 24 hours before the final. About a quarter of those were in the School of Engineering, where students are encouraged "to explore, to look around, to shop," he said.

Steve Chu, physics, said he favored the committee's fourth-week deadline to put some limits on shopping around for courses. Students would understand and retain information better if they focused on in-depth exploration of fewer courses, he said.

Edward Harris, medicine, said that he thought the committee's more stringent proposal would benefit undergraduates. Stanford offers a "wonderful potpourri of courses," he said, "but I'm convinced, in my experience as a resident fellow last year, that more rigor has to be included with this excitement of the multitude of opportunities." A historical transcript "can be an adrenaline that catalyzes the extra effort for an undergraduate to achieve true potential."

Rebholz's amendment failed on a divided voice vote.

He then suggested that failing grades, or NP, should not be recorded - in other words, that the status quo should be retained.

Rebholz repeated earlier arguments he made favoring an achievement record. "We want the people in the outside world to know what our students know, not what they do not know. And it's that knowledge that will get them their jobs and get them into professional schools."

He said he disagreed with the notion that "our transcripts are not regarded with respect."

If that were the case, he asked, why did Stanford students this year win six Marshall scholarships, two Truman scholarships and one Churchill scholarship?

His experience serving on the Rhodes committee for California proved to him, he said, that "the transcripts of Stanford students were very highly regarded."

"I see no reason why we should be in this punitive mode," he said.

After discussion about whether the W - withdrew - could be substituted for the NP notation by extending the withdrawal deadline to the end of the quarter, the senate defeated Rebholz's amendment on a divided voice vote.

As the discussion neared its end, the student senate's Kasrawi asked that the final vote be taken as a roll call. Kasrawi lacked standing to make a formal proposal, but Stephen Krasner, political science, did it on his behalf.

John Bravman, materials science and associate dean of engineering, joined Rebholz and Koseff in voting nay on the new grading policy.

Senate Chair Patricia Jones thanked Mahood and her committee "for doing an extremely thoughtful job" on a complex and difficult issue.

Richard Tsien, molecular and cellular physiology, then spoke up in praise of Rebholz and Koseff, for "having the courage of their convictions." Despite the lopsided vote, many of the senators "felt the tugs and the feelings that you have expressed," he told them.

He also thanked student participants, singling out junior David Cohen for his "very articulate statement." Cohen, a guest of the senate, had given members a two-page letter pleading for the seventh-week drop deadline and urging them to extend the withdrawal deadline rather than institute a failing grade.

Tsien told the senate that "we think we're doing the best thing for the students, and it is to be seen whether that's true or not. But I'd like to really compliment those who lost the vote, and the gallant way in which they expressed their opinions."

Senators endorsed Tsien's conciliatory remarks with loud calls of "hear, hear" and enthusiastic applause.

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