Campus / News / November 4, 2013

Faculty considering changing criteria for an A

A new proposal put forth by Professor of Psychology Tim Kasser would seek to redefine what it means to receive an A grade and require the Registrar to list more information about a student’s relative achievement on all transcripts.

At the moment, an A is defined by faculty regulation C7.2, which states, “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.”

Kasser’s proposal, presented to the assembled faculty at this month’s faculty meeting, would change that wording to require faculty to award an A “When a student has demonstrated substantial mastery of the vast majority of the material and skills taught in the class.”

A second part of the proposal would require the Registrar to list average grades earned in the class alongside the student’s grade when printing transcripts. This would seek to give employers and graduate schools a better sense of how a student was doing by allowing them to see the difficulty of the courses that they were taking.

He was prompted by data showing the vast disparity in the number of A’s awarded by department, saying, “We need to find out a way to be more consistent about what an A means.” Recent data shows that almost half of all grades given out at Knox are A’s, triggering concern that some departments are grading their students easier than others.

A number of faculty members questioned the proposed wording changes.

There was a great deal of discussion whether the adjectives “substantial” and “vast majority” raised the standards necessary to achieve an A or lowered them. This lack of clarity was a point of some concern, as it might subvert the proposal’s intended purpose of standardizing the value of an A across the school.

Professor of Theatre Elizabeth Carlin-Metz defended the old definition along these lines, saying that it has “clarity that is readily available to the students.”

Associate Professor of Political Science Andrew Civettini disagreed and found the new definition clearer, arguing that standards for what is “fully satisfactory” to expect from students may be very different even if they were in the same class.

Civettini also raised concerns about whether the phrase “in the class” excluded non-classroom activities done for credit such as internships and independent study projects.  Kasser said that he thinks all such projects should be graded on a S/U basis.

There was major concern about the possible negative effects the wording change and possible accompanying deflation might have on students’ ability to apply to grad school or jobs, with grade inflation so prevalent nationwide. Knox is already in the bottom half of comparable regional liberal arts schools in terms of average grade awarded.

The second half of the proposal also generated its share of critcism.

Kasser said that his hope was to “convey meaningful information to the student and the outside world.” The intention of this part of the proposal is to help students who are receieving lower GPAs because of their more rigorous courses to be evaluated fairly on their transcripts.

Professor of Political Science Lane Sunderland spoke out in favor of the proposal.

“I like the transparency,” he said, noting that he often had added paragraphs to letters of recommendation for students whose GPAs did not reflect accurately how challenging their courses were.

Professor of Physics and Registrar Charles Schulz admitted that he did not know how such a transcript would be perceived. He also expressed worry about privacy with smaller classes.  Visiting Assistant Professor of Physics Nathalie Haurberg pointed out that in courses below a certain size, the statistical value of an average grade would be minimal anyway.

Assistant Professor of Biology Matthew Jones-Rhoades proposed a single cumulative GPA of what other students earned in all classes the student took as a way of mitigating privacy concerns.

Kasser said that there were some schools that did print such transcripts, although no one present brought one forward as an example. Assistant Professor of Computer Science Jamie Spacco said that Knox should not be the first school to do this.

Ulimately it was decided to give the matter to the Academic Standing Committee to investigate. The results of that investigation will be reported back sometime before March.

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.

Tags:  faculty meeting grade inflation grading Liz Carlin-Metz registrar tim kasser transcript

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Nov 04, 2013

As an alumni now navigating grad school applications, I LOVE this idea. A “B” means a lot more if the average class got a “C,” but it still shows a strong effort on the part of the student. Having taken science courses at other universities over the summer, I can attest that Knox’s were far more difficult – which means I learned more and feel better prepared for graduate school, but have a “B” where a student from a different university got an “A” in the same course with less effort. This allows the college to avoid grade inflation while still expressing the strong work a student did.

But “A’s” should still be outstanding – making them just “mastering the material” is qualitative grade inflation in and of itself. There has to be a way to distinguish above and beyond. Achieving mastery of the material is the goal of the course itself and should be the minimum expectation.

Nov 05, 2013

you, Tim Kasser! Students do need consistency in what grades they’re
awarded, and people evaluating our transcripts do need to fully
understand what our grades mean.

Regarding what qualifies as an A, I don’t believe that it should mean having gone “above and beyond” the requirements of the class. Why is having gone beyond the requirements of the course supposed to be built into the grading system for the course? If I get 95% on an exam, I have gotten an A, but I haven’t gone beyond the expectations, unless the expectations are that I only complete 75% of the answers correctly. And for many courses, that is the expectation. Demonstrating “substantial mastery of the vast majority” of the course material seems to be all that a student could do and be graded for – anything further is an independent project.

That may perhaps be an inflation, but it’s an inflation that has already occurred, and thus needs to be recognized officially.

Nov 13, 2013

“almost half of all grades given out at Knox are A’s”

At first, I really like these proposals. Now I think they miss the point. The regulations don’t need to change in order to be in line with current grading practices. Instead, an ‘A’ should only be given if the student’s work is indeed outstanding. It seems Kasser only took this approach because professors have no authority over other professors’ grading practices.

I like the class average idea, because it gives context. But Spacco is right, Knox can be on the leading edge, but should careful to avoid being on bleeding edge.

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