Episode 151: What About a College’s Grading Practices?

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Today we are going to talk about a topic that I bet you and your high school senior have not given any thought to.  And yet, it’s a topic that you and your high school senior have done nothing but think about for the past year or so, just from a different perspective.  That topic is grades.  Or more precisely, today’s topic is grading practices, which is not exactly the same as your kid’s grades.

Probably the most you have thought about your kid’s high school’s grading practices is whether the school uses a weighted system for figuring a grade point average (GPA)–that all-important GPA that might get your kid into a great college or keep him or her out of one.  There has been a lot of debate about that in the past few years, with no real resolution pro or con.  And, certainly, there has been talk among your kid’s friends (and perhaps your friends, too) about which teachers are easy graders and which teachers are hard graders and whether your kid should select high school electives accordingly.

Well, high school is essentially over, and your kid is going off to college.  How much thought have you both given to the grading practices at the colleges on his or her list?  Yes, those colleges your kid just applied to.  It’s not too late to start thinking now?before your kid makes a final choice in the spring.

1. Some Background

When Marie and I wrote our fantastic book How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students (available at Amazon and a perfect gift for any younger kids you still have at home), we said that kids and their parents need a lot of information about colleges before deciding whether to put a specific college on the kid’s list of college options.  We also said that most of you never get most of the information you need–which is a shame, because it’s hard to make a life-changing decision without having all of the information that is available to you.  The book explains the 52 questions that your kid really should get answers to before deciding whether to apply to a college–much less actually enroll there.  Those questions cover a wide range of categories of information about the college:

  • History and Mission
  • Location
  • Enrollment
  • Class Size
  • Academics
  • Schedule
  • Housing
  • Security Measures
  • Activities and Sports
  • Admission Practices
  • Cost

In the section on Academics, we ask this, among other questions:

Does the college have a traditional numerical or letter grading system for assignments, exams, and final course grades?  If no, jot down the way that students are graded (e.g., with written narrative evaluations where professors comment on strengths and weaknesses).

Here is what we said in the book to explain this question:

We bet that grading practices are not something most students consider before choosing a college?perhaps because they assume that colleges are quite traditional when it comes to awarding final course grades.  Most colleges do, in fact, use some kind of numerical scale (typically, with a 4.0 as an A) or letter scale (typically, from A through F).  These traditional grading practices might seem just fine to you.

However, there are some colleges that are anything but traditional when it comes to evaluating student progress.  For example, take Hampshire College (an excellent and innovative private college in Amherst, Massachusetts), where students receive written narrative evaluations from professors on their assignments and as their final course grades.  No numbers and no letters!  Or, take Bennington College (a great private college in Bennington, Vermont), where students receive narrative evaluations at the end of each course, but may request letter grades; students interested in graduate school are encouraged to request letter grades for at least two years so that a GPA can be calculated for their graduate school applications.

Colleges that use narrative evaluations instead of traditional grades praise their value in teaching their students more about their own strengths and weaknesses, in getting their students to focus on their learning instead of on their grades, and in building better and more stimulating relationships between their students and their professors.  That’s probably something you never thought about before.

Well, Marie, if we had written the book today, we could have added some additional innovative grading practices that a relatively small number of colleges are using, ones that might seem quite attractive to 2017-2018 current crop of applicants.

The question here is not necessarily whether your kid would have applied or would not have applied to a college because of its innovative grading practices, but rather whether he or she (and you) should weigh those grading practices in the scale when you all are ready to make a final choice of a college this spring.  Grades will continue to be a big part of college life for your kid–just as they were in high school.  This is especially true, as Bennington College knows, if your kid intends to go on to graduate school, medical school, or law school.  And, by the way, that’s true whether graduate school comes right after the undergraduate years or, in fact, many years later.  Those undergraduate grades will matter.  So, let’s look at a couple of new grading practices, and you think about what they might mean for your kid.

2. No More F’s

Let’s start at the University of Maine at Presque Isle (UMPI).  Given that UMPI is in northern Maine near the Canadian border and that it enrolls only about 1,200 students, my guess is that your kid has not applied there and that many of you have never heard of it, though it was founded over 100 years ago and is one of the seven campuses in the public University of Maine System.  UMPI was in a situation not unlike a number of other public universities:  a remarkably low 11 percent graduation rate in the traditional four years and only a 30 percent graduation rate in six years and a location in a county that was losing population just when its region needed more college graduates to fill jobs that required a college degree.

An article in The Hechinger Report, written in January by Robbie Feinberg, education reporter for Maine Public Radio, has a catchy headline:  “In rural Maine, a university eliminates most Fs in an effort to increase graduation rates.”  Mr. Feinberg writes:

One of the biggest changes has been the near-elimination of the failing grade. In most classes, if students fail a test or project, they can redo it until they’ve proven they know the material.

If students are still failing at the end of the semester, many won’t receive an F, but instead a grade of “not proficient” or NP. Under the system, students then sign a contract with their professor outlining the work they need to do over the next 45 days to boost that grade to a passing mark. University officials said the system doesn’t work for everyone; some students still end up with F’s. But they hope the added flexibility will help students pass classes the first time so they don’t have to spend extra time and money to retake them. . . .  [UMPI] President Raymond Rice said he’s most encouraged that about 60 percent of students who received a “not proficient” grade eventually converted it to a passing mark. (quoted from the article)

Not having to spend time and money to retake courses has to be a game-changer for a lot of students–certainly for that 60 percent.  And, clearly, keeping F’s out of figuring into a cumulative GPA for one’s undergraduate years has got to be a game-changer for any student who cares about his or her GPA (especially anyone interested in graduate school).  We actually did something similar at the high school that Marie and I co-founded in Brooklyn, where we gave a grade of NC (no credit) to kids who would otherwise have failed; so, they didn’t get credit for the course, but they didn’t have the deadly weight of an F pulling down their GPA forever, either.  I think it “saved a lot of lives,” and I imagine it could be having a similar effect at UMPI.

While the implementation of the new system is not going perfectly at UMPI (you can read Mr. Feinberg’s full article for the details), the policy about giving F’s only as a last resort is one that I find very persuasive.  And, if I had a child getting ready to go to college (not that I would expect that child to get an F–ever), this is a policy that would still make me happy, as a parent.

3. How To Earn an A

Appearing in The Hechinger Report in January (as well as in U.S. News & World Report) was a column by Jill Barshay about a new grading practice at the University of Michigan, that state’s truly excellent public flagship university.  Ms. Barshay writes:

At the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, about 8,000 students have earned their ordinary course grades in an unusual way. They start out the semester with a zero, but each has the opportunity to earn an A by racking up points. The professor determines how many points each assignment or test is worth, and there are various ways to get to an A. If students botch an assignment, they can try something else. Each student can track his or her point tally online and see options for earning more points.

Since developing this system, named “GradeCraft,” five years ago with two colleagues, education professor Barry Fishman gleefully admits he’s awarding many more A’s. He estimates that he’s doling out A’s to 80 percent of his students now, compared with 50 percent or 60 percent beforehand. But, he claims, his students are working a lot harder.

“Colleagues say I’m not rigorous enough,” said Fishman. “I think rigor should be about how challenging the material is, not how hard it is to achieve a certain outcome.”

In surveys conducted by GradeCraft’s inventors, students reported that they worked harder and felt more in control of their class performance.

. . . Fishman argues that conventional grading systems can undermine learning. That’s because if you fail the midterm, and it’s worth 30 percent of the final grade, you might realize that you’ll never be able to claw your way back up to an A, and stop trying. “You moderate your behavior and try less hard to maintain a B average. You see it all the time,” said Fishman.

The opportunity to earn an A, even late in the semester, keeps students engaged, Fishman argues. And it encourages students to take risks, knowing that they can repair the damage later if they fail at first.

In one undergraduate class, Fishman offers a menu of 1.4 million points. Students need to reach 900,000 to get an A. “You could never earn a good grade just by doing dumb stuff,” he said.

In another graduate seminar, Fishman assigns only one paper. But students can revise and resubmit it over and over again to earn an A. (quoted from the article)

For the gaming-like history of GradeCraft’s development and for some perspectives by professors who don’t like it, read Ms. Barshay’s full column.  Nonetheless, I have to say that this grading practice seems pretty appealing to me:  the harder you work, the better grade you are going to get.  Perseverance is rewarded.  Clearly, learning takes place.  Is this system appealing to your kid?  If your kid applied to the University of Michigan, he or she should know that about 100 professors in 28 programs and departments there have tried GradeCraft and have used it more than once.  Would that make the University of Michigan a more attractive option than another great public flagship university?  It might.

4. The Moral of the Story

The moral of the story today is that grading practices can be very different–way more different than you and your high school senior probably thought.  And it’s not too late to find out whether the colleges your kid applied to have done anything innovative on this topic–before you all make a final decision later this spring about where to enroll.  What have you got to lose?

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