HENAGAN: Grade pointless average

The grade point system is an unreliable way to quantify students’ academic success

Last semester I sat down in a meeting with my advisor. I was bright-eyed and enthusiastic, ready to tackle a tougher spring schedule until she suggested I think about protecting my grade point average. Her point was valid: I was thinking about applying to the Commerce school, Batten and maybe the Politics Honors program. Maintaining a strong record of academic excellence would ensure doors to higher levels of education at the University remained open. But when did academic excellence become synonymous with grade point averages? Why was it more important I check the Course Forum for the percentage of A’s a professor historically awarded than it was I read about the details of the subject matter?

The University and peer institutions have a broken method for evaluating the quality of students. According to research conducted by education reformer Alfie Kohn, author of “The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards” and “Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes”, grades have three effects: “First, [students’] interest in the learning itself is diminished. Second, they come to prefer easier tasks — not because they’re lazy, but because they’re rational. After all, if the point is to get an A, your odds are better if you avoid taking intellectual risks. Third, students tend to think in a more superficial fashion — and to forget what they learned more quickly — when grades are involved.” The grade point system pushes students to take classes with favorable grading scales instead of challenging material. This system stymies intellectual curiosity by making it “rational” to remain within one’s academic comfort zone, and it penalizes innovative scheduling combined with true academic rigor. Google search “easiest classes at U.Va” and scroll through the plethora of advice on how to pad your schedule with classes to boost a sagging GPA.

Several departments have realized the intellectual freedom granted by removing the numeric system of evaluation. For example, the Politics Honors program freezes students grade point averages upon their acceptance to the program if they choose to take all their classes outside the program as pass/fail. According to their website, the department believes this program provides students “with flexibility to develop innovative approaches to understanding the most important political issues of our time.” Developing avant-garde approaches to learning and inquiry or pushing your scholarly boundaries often means experiencing academic failure. The University needs a system of evaluation that provides incentives, not repercussions, for intellectual risk takers.

Furthermore, grades are usually one individual’s evaluation of the quality of a piece of work, and the more advanced the subject or student the greater variance between different graders’ perspectives on what is “A” or “high-quality” work. If a student produces work that refutes a professor’s opinion or core academic, personal or moral principles, the professor is automatically subject to bias when grading. He or she will look for flaws in an argument as opposed to the quality of the work produced. Grades are so often arbitrary; the higher education system needs an evaluative format that that looks beyond just a number.

Almost everyone can agree there must be some method for evaluating the quality of a student’s work and his intellectual caliber. Employers and graduate schools need some method for choosing from a pool of applicants, and there needs to be some motivation for students to produce advanced work outside of simple desire for excellence. Institutions of higher education should have students in every subject matter produce a portfolio, meaning the school should require each student to produce a tangible and evaluable body of work by the end of their time at the University. A system along these lines would mean more work for evaluators, but why should society not buy into a system that rewards innovation instead of “taking the easy way out?” Many of the creative disciplines, like graphic design and photography, have already moved toward this paradigm. This system provides a way for Universities to prove its students have been taught real tangible skills that can be applied in the workplace.

The grade point system produces students with empty diplomas and false accolades. According to Kohn, grades are as unnecessary as “paddling or taking extended dictation.” Currently several private high schools, like Saint Ann’s School in New York City, exchange grades for a series of personal progress reports by teachers. While this system may be the ideal, it remains unfeasible in a large University setting. However, requiring a similar report from professors with students in small upper-level seminar style classes could be a way to incorporate multiple mediums of analysis into a student’s portfolio. The University could be the first major public institution to take the first step towards choosing innovation over the stagnant status quo. We need to shift towards an educational perspective that de-emphasizes what has become an easily manipulable and senseless numerical scoring system.

William Henagan is a Viewpoint Writer.

Published March 18, 2014 in Opinion

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