Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Lettered grading has got to go

The value placed on letter grades is not indicative of a student’s knowledge
Justin Surgent/ Collegian

We’re all used to the feeling of dread (or excitement) a student experiences upon receiving their grades. An ‘A’ is considered to be the pinnacle of academic achievement, anything less than that and you’ve somehow fallen short. Society all around us reinforces that notion. Parents, employers and graduate schools are all supremely concerned with the letter grades you’ve received and the resulting GPA.

The problem with this system is it offers little thought to the actual education being imparted to students. When many college courses weigh half of the final grade in some form of examinations, such as midterms and finals, an ‘A’ indicates only that a student is proficient in rote memorization and test-taking. Those are important skills, but don’t always demonstrate a thorough understanding of the course content.

I started to think about this topic when I decided to take Professor Paul Musgrave’s Political Science 121 course this semester. The class follows a unique combination of pass/fail and ‘Mastery’ grading systems. The assignments given to students require them to meet a certain number of objectives like identifying five out of six countries correctly on a map in order to pass. In addition to this, Professor Musgrave offers much clarity about grading criteria and expectations, laying out exactly the amount of work would be required to achieve a specific grade level.

This method of assessing student knowledge sounds more practical than the alternative, right?

Of course, no grading system is perfect, and non-traditional systems also have flaws. In some circumstances they may simply be way too lenient, allowing even minimal effort to result in seemingly stellar accomplishment. Again, the actual purpose of any grading system should be to measure a student’s understanding of the course.

Around the country there are multiple examples of such systems. Brown University allows their students to choosebetween letter grading or satisfactory/no credit grading, as well as requesting written evaluations from instructors. Evergreen State College goes much further than this, allowing students to design their own majors, with no required curriculum.

At this point a counterargument arises: if these non-traditional systems are so varied how will they maintain the uniformity necessary to compare undergraduate academic success? After all, hiring and graduate school admissions are entirely competitive processes. Grades and GPA are a universally understood metric, precisely because most academic institutions use them in one way or another.

The problem with this logic is that it runs up against the fact that we weigh grades and academic performance excessively. Grades can certainly be indicative of aptitude in certain areas but even a great transcript doesn’t always prepare you for a job interview.

Grades also ignore the fact that people may grow and change in their academic skills during their academic careers. A poor freshman year may derail a student’s prospects if the only thing being looked at by the powers that be is the final cumulative GPA on their transcript.

I’m not trying to make the argument that grades are somehow unimportant or irrelevant. They definitely have a role to play, but we must ask ourselves two questions when talking about this issue. First, are our grading systems achieving their mission of measuring a student’s understanding of material being taught? Second, how much of a role do we want grades to play in our academic careers? Should grades be all-important, or are they simply supplemental?

Finally, we must ask if our universities are institutions that produce complete human beings or are they merely conveyor belts of numbers and letters in humanoid form?

Manas Pundit can be reached at [email protected].

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