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. …