Campus / News / February 18, 2009

Grade inflation may bring changes to Dean’s List requirements

In coming terms, students may have to work harder to get on the Dean’s List, or maybe even just to get an “A”. Associate Dean of the College Stephen Bailey, who is also head of the Academic Standing Committee, said that, pending approval of the Academic Standing Committee, the proposed change of raising the grade point average (GPA) requirement for the Dean’s List from 3.45 to 3.6 “will likely be passed by the end of spring term and will go into effect next year.” He also said that there may be a revision of the Latin honors awarded at graduation as well.

Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College Lawrence Breitborde said that he first noticed that more students were getting on the Dean’s List simply by the quantity of letters he had to sign. “I had to stop and take breaks,” he said. Bailey said this was part of what alerted him to the situation as well. Spring term of 2008, there were 521 students on the Dean’s List, or 41 percent of the student body.

“If Dean’s List is a distinction and an honor, it should be more exclusive,” Breitborde said.

The changing of the required GPA would not be so much a rising of it, but a return. In 1992, the college implemented the addition of pluses and minuses to be used for grading and fearing that students’ grades would lower because of it, changed the Dean’s List requirement to 3.45

Breitborde said that the administration was afraid that in a borderline situation between an “A-” and a “B+“ the student would get the “B+“. However, that is most often not the case, as the administration learned. Breitborde said that he nows feels that “any grade inflation from that change is long past.”

So if the grade inflation created by the addition of pluses and minuses is gone, what is causing it now? Vice President for Student Development and Dean of Students Xavier Romano says that it is not that professors are more lenient — in fact he thinks they expect more now — but that “students are savvier at what gets them an ‘A’ or a ‘B’.”

Romano also thinks that the kinds of students Knox is attracting are of a different caliber than they were when he first arrived at Knox ten years ago. He said that former college president Richard Nahm changed Knox from being a “quintessential Midwest liberal arts college” to a “national liberal arts college.” He thinks this change has diversified Knox.

“Knox has every kind of student under the sun, except bad students,” Romano said.

Breitborde has different suspicions about why grades are higher now than they were ten years ago. His two main two reasons were “the human factor” and independent studies. For him “the human factor” is that “Knox is a small school where people know each other and professors see how much work goes into what students are doing.” So while the work may not be top work, a student can get a better grade on it at Knox because the professor knows what is going on in the student’s life or how much work they put into something and may give them a better grade based on those factors.

Breitborde also feels that the amount of independent studies may factor into why grades are rising at Knox. If a student is allowed to work on something they feel more passionately about, it is only reasonable to suspect that they will do better on it than something they are not interested in.

According to Breitborde, some faculty are also concerned that there is a detachment between how some faculty are grading and what the requirements are in the course catalog and faculty regulations. On the faculty regulations, “C” comes first as being a “performance that is competent or fully satisfactory for progress toward the Knox baccalaureate degree.” The requirements for “A”, “B”, “D”, and “F” follow (see box).

Breitborde says that at the end of the year, faculty are emailed reports about how their grades were distributed, as well as for their department as a whole, in hopes that a comparison may cause some professors to decrease the amount of “A’s” that are given. “Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t,” said Breitborde.

Knox is not alone in its grade inflation, however. Romano says that there is a “national concern at institutions of our kind.” Breitborde says that in graphs of national grade inflation, Knox falls steadily in the middle, but the graph as a whole is going up fairly severely.

Breitborde said that if the college were to radically defy the national grade inflation, it could go one of two ways for students. One way is that they could go into the competitive world with lower grades than everyone else and be horribly disadvantaged. Or, Knox students could go out into the world with lower grades, but be recognized for having gotten a better education and having worked harder.

Not all Knox professors are against the grade inflation, though. Classics professor Steve Fineberg not only is in favor of grade inflation, but wishes that students were not graded at all.

“I recognize that there is a good reason for having grades, but I wish that grad schools would look more at writing samples and the recommendations over the grades,” Fineberg said. “I feel that I set what I think is an attainable bar for students to get the message of the course, but people who want to know things will work hard to get that knowledge.” Fineberg feels that grades do not always reflect that.

However, Associate Professor of English Lori Haslem say that she is “receptive” to the proposed Dean’s List changes “because it seems like grade inflation has hit us and a higher percentage of students are on it than seems credible.” She is also “ready for the discussion” that these proposed changes may bring.

Faculty Regulations:

Grades shall be given strictly on the basis of performance in courses and for no other consideration.

• The grade of C (2.0) shall be recorded for performance that is competent or fully satisfactory for progress toward the Knox baccalaureate degree.

• The grade of A shall be recorded for performance that is outstanding in relation to that which is competent or fully satisfactory for progress toward the Knox baccalaureate degree.

• The grade of B shall be recorded for performance that is conspicuously better than that which is competent or fully satisfactory for progress toward the Knox baccalaureate degree.

• The grade of D shall be recorded for performance that is less than competent or fully satisfactory for progress toward the Knox degree but has redeeming qualities.

• The grade of F shall be recorded for performance that is unworthy of credit toward the Knox degree.

Amy LaBudde

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