Asking about your GPA

We don’t talk much about grades at Williams. Students are generally mum or vague and those who flout GPAs are seen as odd geese, to put it kindly. Certainly, the administration also prefers things this way: the less talk of grades and GPAs is bandied about, the less potential there is that students will concern themselves with the increasing meaninglessness of such measures. What am I talking about? The answer to the following quiz may surprise you:

1) About what percent of all grades at Williams last year fell in the ‘A’ range (-A, A or +A)?
2) What was the college-wide average GPA last year?
3) Are average grades across Divisions 1, 2, and 3 roughly equal?
4) In a consortium of about 26 highly competitive colleges and universities with whom Williams consistently shares data (including college GPAs), where does Williams rank in terms of highest average GPA?
5) Does grade inflation continue to exist at Williams?

Let’s see how you did:
1) About fifty percent.
2) As specifically as can be put in print: what amounts to a low B+.
3) No. At the 100, 200 and 300 levels, grades in Division 1 classes are consistently a tenth of a point higher than the average Division 2 and Division 3 grades at those levels. Grades at the 400 level, however, are roughly equivalent across divisions.
4) Williams is consistently near the top of the list, ranking for the 2006 to 2007 academic year among the top six schools in terms of average GPA.
5) Yes. Though grade inflation has slowed as compared to pre-1999 to 2000 rates, inflation still persists.

As these statistics suggest, grades at Williams are high, and getting higher. In 1999, before Williams instated the suggested grading guidelines, David Booth, a former professor, projected that at the then-current rate of inflation, the average GPA today would be about 4.0. Sure, in one sense we’d all like 4.0s, but as average grades climb higher, grades also become more compressed (read: meaningless).

In 2000, the College took steps to counter the trend. Williams created guidelines for professors, suggesting upper limits for average grades. These suggestions range from 3.2 at the 100 level, up to 3.5 at the 400 level, increasing by increments of one tenth of a grade point each level. At the end of semesters, professors are given data on their own grading compared with similar level courses in their department, similar courses across their division and comparisons to college-wide averages. These measures have slowed, but not stopped inflation. Yet, not all Williams professors are equally concerned.

Duane Bailey, professor of computer science, explained that grade inflation “takes indicators away,” thus creating inadequate assessments of students’ performance. Bailey sees grades as an important way for students to better understand “where you stand in the Williams universe.” “I give out Cs,” Bailey said, “and I feel sad about that. I shouldn’t, but that grade has become extremely punitive. It may take students three or four courses for their GPA to recover.”

As Williams professors serve out fewer and fewer low grades, the punitive power of a single low grade, in terms of class rank and comparative GPA, when applying to, say, medical school, becomes ever greater. Receiving what is officially termed a ‘fair’ performance of C in a single course has become, for the average Williams student, anything but. But as long as the majority of students rarely see such grades, does this concern really matter?

College Registrar Charles Toomajian notes that grade inflation is a national phenomenon, and that inflation at Williams is very much in line with schools with which the college typically compares itself (everyone wave to Amherst). But if every school in America jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would that make it ok? Princeton has said ’no,’ with a grading policy that limits As to 35 percent of regular course grades and 55 percent of junior and senior independent course grades.

Monique Deveaux, professor of political science, sees such actions as intriguing but unlikely at Williams. Toomajian agrees and also points out that some grade inflation at the College is likely a byproduct of actions with educational benefits: “Average class sizes have gone down, tutorials and independent work have increased and the academic ability of incoming students, by most measures, has gone up over time. Is that such a bad thing?”

Theo Davis, professor of English, had a similar take. The compression in grading seems, in Davis’ eyes, at least in part to indicate a general high skill level among students. “It seems unfair to invent a level of disparity that just isn’t there,” she said. Bailey, however, might have replied that the difficulty professors have in attempting to adequately indicate disparity among students when it truly does exist in this era of grade inflation seems, to some, equally unfair.

Matthew Furlong ’10 is a philosophy and sociology major from Amesbury, Mass.