Meaningful grades grow increasingly rare

The continued rise in the college-wide average GPA, officially recognized at Wednesday’s faculty meeting, is cause for informed concern. The fact that the average grade given out is just over a B+ begs evaluation because, as was expressed at the meeting, it suggests that the latitude professors have in assigning meaningful grades has become increasingly compressed.

The College has tracked this trend, and last week the faculty passed the proposal of the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) to establish voluntary target GPAs by class level and to distribute department GPA statistics to the faculty.

As the average grade pushes itself higher and higher, the distinctions between good, great and extraordinary work are becoming more difficult for professors to express. By all rights, a B+ should be a fine grade: until last year’s redefinition of cum laude distinction, it would have been one officially praised by the College. But there remains a fair percentage of Williams students that has become so accustomed to high grades that they would consider a B+ a disappointment.

The fact of the matter is that in some courses, a B+ is great; in others, it’s easy to acquire. It is fair to generalize that this is not because of differences among departments or course levels, but because grades mean vastly different things to different people, professors and students. Professor of political science George Marcus put it best: “We have a chaotic process by which faculty hand out whatever grades they like with little or no review and with purposes that reflect a variety of goals.”

We conceptualize grades as reflective responses of a sort – rewarding good work and attempting to rectify bad work – but they should be instructive as well. Grades should, at the very least, allow both student and professor to monitor progress. Ideally, they are components of the course, which, along with discussion and critical feedback, help to structure the experience of learning.

Unfortunately, the institutionalized chaos to which Marcus referred, the primary impediment to the utility of grades, is far beyond the scope of the semantic capping procedures just passed. The CEP proposal, in setting a series of minutely gradated targets, merely supports the illusory notion that a B+, an A- or any grade has a discrete meaning, a concept that should serve only to increase student dissatisfaction with particular marks. The sometimes seen A-/B+ grade would not be necessary were it possible to distinguish the quality of work over a larger scale; perhaps a more numerically based system would provide this option even within the currently compressed grading range.

Target grades dictated by course level (the projected target for 100-level courses is 3.2, whereas by 400-level courses it reaches 3.5), further institutionalize grade irrelevance. More advanced, intensely focused courses are ultimately the academic pillar of a major. Yet the targets will lead to an even smaller scale across which to distribute grades. The average grade will fall between B+ and A-.

Some colleges – Brown and Hampshire are prominent examples – are moving sharply away from grades as evaluative measures. While this is not our recommended solution to the problems of grading, it is an instructive and useful extreme example. This is because its ideals are important to keep sight of: encouraging broad experimentation, lessening competition and focusing on the process, not the bottom line, might sound like well-worn tropes, but they are fundamental to the liberal arts education Williams offers.

The process of grading is obviously imperfect, perhaps unavoidably so, but the way to attack its myriad problems does not end with statistical analysis. And so, while moves to stop grade inflation are warranted, we must remember why: they are not because 3.34 is inherently too high a number, but because it might just be symptomatic of a greater inadequacy in the way our educations are summarized.