Making The Grade: Transcripts Sometimes Reflect Factors Other Than. Achievement
by Mary-Christine Phillip
While college grades are generally understood to reflect levels of academic achievement, factors other than performance on tests are often reflected in student grades, some educators say.
"Assigning grades for term papers, test scores and other projects can be a subjective process," says Robert Frary, director of the Office of Measurement and Research Services at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. "Even if achievement is to be the sole determiner of marks, there is still the question of what should serve as the standard against which achievement is judged."
Frary, along with colleagues Lawrence Cross and Larry Weber, a few years ago conducted a survey on faculty grading practices at Virginia Polytechnic titled "College Grading: Achievement, Attitudes and Effort." They found that, when deciding between which of two grades to assign to borderline students, 74 percent of those surveyed indicated they would reward exceptional effort with higher grades, and 50 percent indicated they would punish disruptive behavior with lower grades. Even a student's negative attitude toward a course could affect grades.
While the survey was confined to Virginia Polytechnic -- a predominantly white campus where African American students make up 8 percent of the student body -- outsiders who have seen the survey say they are not surprised by the results. The question of test fairness, particularly on standardized tests as they apply to minority students, has been part of an ongoing education controversy for years. Although much scrutiny has been given to the testing and grading of elementary and high school students, little, if any, attention is given to grading and testing of minorities in college.
Getting good grades and keeping up with what is unfolding in the classroom are important because they lead to degrees and graduation, the goal of most recruitment and retention programs, says Denice Ward Hood, of the Office of Evaluation at the Arizona State University.
Harold Dent, a research professor of psychology at Hampton University, agrees. Dent looks with skepticism at the grading system. He says that, "like everything else in life, grading in college and university is not totally objective. If a student demonstrates respect for the professor and the system, and performs according to established standards, there is a good chance that that could influence the gradings," says Dent. "On the other hand, if you have a student who challenges the system and shows little respect for the professor and the system, I think that student may have to pay a penalty.
"So I say to minority students, 'get the degree and then worry about the other issues.' They have to find ways to work within the system or pay a penalty."
On the Mark
Hood, who a few years ago studied factors affecting retention of Black men at the predominantly white Northern Illinois University, said that rapport between students and professors is very important. "Some students are very sensitive. They may pick up on little negative subtleties of professors, and that can have an impact on their performance in the classroom," she says.
"For minority students, if something is said and they feel threatened or unwelcomed, this can lead to a downward spiral. Professors must be willing to give students feedback, and students have to find ways to recover when they receive a bad grade. They also have to seek out counselors and advisors."
Scholars who have been studying recruitment and retention of minority students at predominantly white campuses say that a bad grade or a misunderstanding with a professor sometimes can result in students dropping out of college.
Tendaji Ganges, director of the Office of Educational Services and Programs at Northern Illinois, says that for incoming African American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American students, adjusting to life on campus can be tough. And problems of adjustment, coupled with poor or failing grades, could be devastating.
Ganges, in acknowledging that the grading process can be subjective, said that it is not uncommon for students to interpret bad grades as statements against them. "They often think that is the way the institution views them, and they fail to see it as being tied into their performance. They may think that the professor is being hard on them, and that can set the tone for their college experience."
According to Robert Lissitz, chairman of the Testing and Research Department at the University of Maryland College Park, "while everything in life is subjective," for the most part, students are graded based solely on their performance. He contends that in some disciplines, such as the sciences, there is no way that a professor's subjectivity can be a factor in grading. The tests are usually straightforward, and a student either passes or fails. In the humanities, a number of factors can be considered, but for the most part, he insists that grading is based on performance.
At most academic institutions, faculty members recognize their responsibility to communicate to students how grades will be determined in their courses. Almeta Stokes, an adjunct professor of education psychology at Howard University, adds that typically, a course syllabus indicates the number and types of tests to be administered and how much each test, homework assignment and other course requirements will count toward the final course.
Also, many faculty members indicate the percentage ranges associated with each letter grade, suggesting an absolute performance standard, even though they may add or subtract points to insure that reasonable numbers of students receive each letter grade.
But according to the Frary, Cross and Weber survey, often, syllabi do not make clear whether percentage scores or letter grades are averaged. Nor do syllabi say what types of grades are recorded for missed tests or late assignments and whether extraneous factors, such as apparent effort and attitudes toward the course, enter into the grading process. Educators and testing officials at other institutions say that such biases are not widespread. They point out that while a student's participation in the classroom may help, it does not make much difference on written exams.
The issue of how to determine college grades when students have unexcused absences for tests and late or missing assignments is not often discussed. Frary said that the survey found that most faculty members viewed unexcused absences for tests as justification for imposing a score penalty. He said that 77 percent of the respondents reported that a major paper or project turned in late without a valid excuse was accepted, but was penalized with a lower grade. About 12 percent did not accept the work, and recorded it as a failing grade.
Ganges always tells students to establish a positive relationship with professors very early in the semester.
"Higher education has been woefully inadequate in helping students -- particularly incoming students -- adjust to the college classroom," he says, pointing to studies which show that students who need help usually do not seek it early. When they do, often, it's too late.
To help students adjust to college life, Southern Illinois offers two sets of classes. One of them, offered by Ganges' department, helps students by encouraging them to study in groups and provides assistance in helping them find advisors and counselors.
Frary says it is important that grades reflect levels of achievement only, and not extraneous factors such as effort, aptitude or attitude. While it is only natural to consider extraneous factors when deciding between borderline grades, Frary says, it is ill-advised to reward exceptional effort, to penalize negative attitudes, or to consider whether a student is working to capacity when determining grades.
"Similarly, class participation should be considered only if it represents an integral part of the course requirements, as in a course involving a laboratory or studio requirement or one with a specific oral component, such as a foreign-language course."
The survey said that adoption of a relative "grading standard forces one to recognize the subjective nature of grading, and thus minimize the potential grading abuse that arises from scores as direct reflections of course achievement."
It stated further that if courses reflect levels of achievement and adopt relative standard grading, fewer people are likely to engage in the following:
Determining letter grades on the basis of arbitrary and fixed percentage ranges;
Averaging in percent-correct scores of zero for tests missed without valid excuses;
Taking into consideration extraneous factors such as effort and attitudes when determining course grades; and
Including class participation in the determination of grades, except when it is an integral part of the course.
Frary says, "It is unfortunate that measurement specialists have not been able to communicate this message successfully to a great proportion of faculty members.... Students are the real losers, and we believe they have the right to expect objectively determined grades that accurately reflect their final levels of achievement."
Photo (Students at Northern Illinois University are encouraged to study in groups)