Duke University Alumni Magazine

Where Are The C's of Yesteryear
Indexing Achievement
by Robert J. Bliwise
Illustrations by Walter Stanford

According to a committee report, the system centered on the traditional Grade Point Average sors the intellectual atmosphere. Others on campus agreed about the problem -- but not about the rememdy.
riter Kurt Vonnegut, speaking at Duke in late February, made his rambling and witty way through a melange of themes: the limitations of the family, the plight of the novelist, the decline of decency. But right from the start, he showed that he knew his audience: He began with a dig at the University of North Carolina, endorsed a candidate in the student government elections, then announced that "indexing of grades is an outrage," adding, "Grade inflation is good for everybody."

     Vonnegut had tapped into the debate that hit Duke--and the education press--just as student preoccupations normally would have turned toward midterm assignments and basketball tournaments. The debate centered on the so-called Achievement Index (the A.I.), which would have gradually replaced the traditional Grade Point Average.

     But intention was not to translate into action: In a mid-March vote, the faculty Arts and Sciences Council voted nineteen to fourteen against even experimenting with the index for an eighteen-month trial period. (The trial would have omitted the new computations from students' permanent transcripts.) Just days before, the Duke Student government had sponsored a student referendum on the A.I. Of those who voted, 88 percent registered their disapproval.

     If the Arts and Sciences Council vote transpired in an atmosphere of academic propriety--and transpired, in fact, in the absence of many members who didn't bother to show for the culminating event--the preceding debate was very boisterous, and very public. Newsweek ran a feature that declared: "Duke takes on grade inflation." With metaphoric exuberance, the magazine said, "Grades seem to have risen almost as fast as tuition," and "Duke reformers think the G.P.A. has become so badly overweight that the only solution is death--not a diet." For his part, Duke physics chair and professor Lawrence Evans, in a letter to the Duke Chronicle, insisted that the greater issue is "inequality of grading standards, the lack of any consistency among instructors as to what the various grades signify, which results in gross unfairness to students."

     The proposal came from an ad-hoc Committee on Grades, appointed by the Arts and Sciences Council in December 1995. According to the committee's report, the average of all grades at Duke rose sharply from about 2.7 (on a 0-4.0 scale) in 1969 to about 3.0 in 1972, remained roughly constant from 1972 until 1986, and then began another period of sharp increase that passed 3.3 in 1994. During this same period, the fraction of grades given that were B's fell from nearly 43 percent to 37 percent, the fraction of C's fell from nearly 26 percent to 10 percent, and the fraction of A's rose from 21 percent to 46 percent. "It is somewhat alarming to note," says the report, "that in another twenty-five years, were this trend to persist, 97 percent of all grades would be A's."

     According to the report, the current system of reporting Grade Point Average and G.P.A.-based rank in class produces not only upward pressure on grades but also a souring of "the general intellectual atmosphere of the university." In particular, the G.P.A. basis of ranking encourages "shopping for grades" in order to increase a student's G.P.A. and the associated rank in class. Over time, high-grading classes will experience increasing enrollments and low-grading classes will experience diminishing enrollments. That migration will, in itself, cause average grades to increase and will put pressure on low-grading professors to change their ways.

     Committee members considered, and rejected, the so-called "Dartmouth Proposal." In that scheme, the mean of the grades received by all students in a course would be listed on the transcript in addition to the student's grade. If a class were taken only by outstanding students, the average grade, appropriately, might be an A-minus. But reporting such an average penalizes those high achievers, the committee concluded. Only a more sensitive system would be a fairer system. And that's where Valen Johnson came in.

     The A.I. is the creation of Johnson, an associate professor of statistics. It's mathematically complex, he says, but so what? As he put it in early March, "Duke has lost six or seven basketball games this season, and they're still a top-ten team. And there are probably a hundred schools across the nation in different conferences that have lost six or seven games. Everybody understands that the basketball rankings are accounting for the difficulty of the opponents' schedules. And the A.I. is accounting for the difficulty of the class that's taken. People understand the Consumer Price Index, they understand the unemployment rates, they understand tennis and golf rankings. Not one of those rankings could a normal person compute from raw data. But everyone understands exactly what they mean."

     Under Johnson's proposal, professors would grade students in the usual way, but the "raw data" would be adjusted for levels of diffi-culty. The index rewards students who do well in classes with a wide distribution of grades; it also rewards those who take courses with peers who have a history of taking challenging courses and doing well in them. Some B's and even some C's could greatly increase a student's academic rank, while some A's wouldn't move the rank at all.

     The Chronicle of Higher Education used the example of a junior who takes an economics class with other students who have done very well in their first two years. That student could benefit greatly from a B, especially if the professor awarded a lot of C's. But if a student takes a class with mostly subpar classmates, taught by a professor who's an unabashed grade inflator, his indexed score might not move even if he earned an A.

     "Some students would be ranked higher, some students would be ranked lower, some students would have higher G.P.A.'s, and some students would have lower G.P.A.'s," Johnson says. "But on average there would be no change. So I don't think it would hurt Duke students at all. And in fact, it might actually increase the admissions rate to professional schools, if you assume that students trying to enter professional schools are taking harder classes, because they would be the students who would benefit most."

     A conspicuous critic of the index, senior Takcus Nesbit, president of the Duke Student Government, says the proposal targeted the wrong group in its attack on grading standards--students rather than faculty members. At the departmental level, chairs should be able to approach their colleagues and tell them, "Hey, your class is not as rigorous as we'd like it to be, and we'd like to see some different standard in the classroom," he says. "You're not necessarily infringing upon the autonomy of the professor, but saying these are the standards we'd like to hold our students to."

     In Johnson's view, though, "It would be very difficult to impose grading constraints on the faculty. And I think in many cases it would be inappropriate. In some smaller classes, I can almost understand that in trying to establish rapport with students, faculty feel that it's better to assign high marks. And I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with that, as long as the faculty who are assigning marks that way don't insist that their A's be given as much weight as an A from another faculty member who perhaps assigned only 5 or 10 percent of his students A's. The A.I. basically is just accounting for those differences. It's fine for faculty to assign high grades, but they should not be ranking students outside of their class. And in effect, that's what they do in the current system. They say that the students they have in their class are uniformly better than students taking another class. That's where the unfairness rises."

     Whether they understand its nuances or not, most students don't like what they know about the index. One striking aspect of the debate was that some of its electric moments were in fact electronic moments--news-group conversations on the Internet. As is fitting for a free-flowing, unmoderated forum, the string of commentary ranged from the thoughtful (a chart showing grade distribution at Duke) to the intemperate (ugly associations between the Duke-conceived "A.I." and "A.I" as understood by the computer-science community--that is, an Artificial Intelligence that had its most fantastic expression in 2001: A Space Odyssey and the murderous HAL computer).

     In a more conventional medium, The Chronicle editorialized against the idea. According to the January editorial, the A.I. would introduce a "simple mathematical formula"--though simple may not be the word--that compares essentially noncomparable courses; would discourage students from challenging themselves with elective courses outside their majors because, in any given class, they would be ranked against the student "majors"; and would undervalue the performance of the high-achieving students who enroll together in demanding, limited-enrollment seminars. And in a unanimous vote in early February, the Duke Student Government (DSG) passed a resolution recommending that the Arts and Sciences Council reject the proposal. It then proceeded to schedule the March student referendum--a sequence of events that some observers saw as manipulation of a hot-button, and poorly understood, issue.

     One of the few students who publicly saw merit in the index, sophomore Jeff Horwich, says that both the student government and the student newspaper responded shrilly and thoughtlessly to the proposal. DSG voted on the idea after a single presentation, which was hardly enough, he says, to provide a firm grasp of its complicated workings. "In a lot of ways the debate has been messed up even further by the fact that DSG believes that it can play this dual role of lobbying against the proposal and being the responsible informer of students at the same time. It seems to me that those jobs are really not compatible."

     He points to an advertisement for a "town meeting" that was titled "Say Goodbye to Your G.P.A."--one sign of the automatic condemnation that greeted the proposal. "Not only is this blatantly wrong--the G.P.A. is not going anywhere anytime soon--it is also displaying a rampant bias against the proposal. And students were entering into this debate with an opinion already shoved in their face by DSG before they had a chance to become informed for themselves."

     If the proposal grew from an effort to inspire greater intellectual engagement on campus, that's fine with Horwich. "I've heard students say, "I'm here to get grades, I'm here because I want to get a good G.P.A. and find a cushy job when I graduate.' In that respect, this proposal does really have some normative aspects to it. It does seek to change those students' behaviors, and those are the students who are going to lose under the A.I. Frankly, I don't feel too bad about that."

     Another student, junior physics major Benni Goetz, agreed with index-inventor Johnson's argument that the G.P.A. forces students into rational choice-making that's educationally unfortunate. "I want to learn some quantum mechanics, and am thinking of taking Physics 211 next semester," he said in an electronic discussion. "But you can see the perverse incentive that the G.P.A. forces on me: Although I would learn far more from the physics course, my rank in class would benefit by taking it easy and taking the gut class. What kind of an atmosphere does this set up at a university, where people are supposed to challenge themselves and take what interests them?" In a follow-up message, he said that "From my own experience, I know the G.P.A. is unfair. I know I could be earning a higher G.P.A. by learning less, working less, and performing at a lower level, if I were in a different department, and were taking different classes. I'm not bitter about it, but it irks me."

     But there were plenty of professors who found the index idea irksome. Paul Gronke, assistant professor of political science, took to The Chronicle's letters page to argue that, at its root, the proposal asserted a grade inflation "problem" at Duke, but never proved that the problem exists. Curricular changes introduced in 1986 allowed students to opt out of courses that had been part of a general studies requirement, he pointed out. "This is an obvious possible contributor for increases in the average grade, much more reasonable than the proposal's assertion of some sinister plot by evaluation-grubbing junior faculty and grade-grubbing students." (Some of Gronke's colleagues remark on another explanation for soaring G.P.A.'s: Duke has been enrolling students with better academic credentials than was the case a decade or more ago.)

     Gronke outlined what became the common criticisms of the proposal: It would encourage students to shop for courses with a wide dispersion of grades, and so steer them away from small classes filled with other smart and interesting students; it would discourage professors from working to improve the grades of students having difficulty because, by so doing, they would hurt their best students; and since Duke would become the only school to report the index on the permanent student record, it would cause confusion among employers and graduate school admissions committees everywhere.

     Enlarging on his complaints in the electronic discussion, Gronke speculated about faculty behavior. Professors might be inspired to avoid student complaints about grades by giving everyone a good mark, he said. "Would any faculty member do this? The A.I. proposal asserts that faculty already do this, inflating their grades in order to obtain better evaluations and avoid grade appeals. The A.I. doesn't fix this, it might exacerbate it, since your overly high grades are "fixed' elsewhere."

     Gronke's most cutting comment, which was a standard argument of A.I. opponents, was that the index would increase academic competition: Students would shy away from helping their peers, since in so doing they would presumably hurt their own rankings. Says student government president Nesbit: "I just don't see Duke as a learning culture where students are so competitive that they don't collaborate with each other. That, in my opinion, is a more enriching learning experience. One of our criticisms of the A.I. is the possibility, at least, that the future might be different."

     Johnson refutes the competition argument with an experiment. After explaining the index to students in two statistics courses, he surveyed them about whether they would be less likely to help others, or to work in cooperative study groups, if the A.I. were adopted. An overwhelming majority said they would help their peers as agreeably as ever. Most also reported, though, that they considered it less likely that they would receive help from other students. In Johnson's view, the latter response suggests that students think their peers are "more competitive and more cut-throat" than they really are.

     For his part, Nesbit finds the second result worrisome. He says it points to the perception--if not the reality--that the A.I. is "an incentive to make other students fail, simply because your grade depends upon how everyone else performs in the class."

     In her letter to The Chronicle, art history professor Annabel Wharton painted one of the remarkable aspects to this debate in a presumed "community" of scholars. What she per- ceived was a confrontation across an intellectual rift--a rift defined by those who believe that truth can be quantified and those who believe that truth cannot be quantified. In Wharton's view, the A.I. is an attack on "the non-quantitative sector" of the university, a means of passing judgment upon "lenient" faculty as much as it is a means of ranking students.

     In art history, "questions of quality are central but acknowledged as unquantifiable," according to Wharton. "A painting is not a great painting because it has more square centimeters of canvas than any other or because more people have gone to look at it in a museum. Art history also suggests that quality is not relative. A great Manet is not better than a great Rembrandt. What I learn from my research I apply to my students. My evaluation of my students is subjective."

     The A.I. suggests "the increasing institutional hegemony of those who believe truth can be quantified," Wharton wrote. "The quantifiers are those who are uncomfortable with how disorderly life seems to have become--bureaucrats, administrators, and academics. Their desire for order is inevitably hierarchical. This hierarchy, by privileging the quantitative, inevitably marginalizes me, my colleagues in the arts and humanities, and our students."

     Among those who carried forward the competing-cultures theme was James Rolleston, professor and chair of Germanic languages and literature, who serves on the Arts and Sciences Council. Before the final vote, Rolleston told the council that the index was "an anti-intellectual move." The faculty, he said, had seemingly plunged into a state of amnesia about the core of what education is about--critical resistance to dehumanizing tendencies. "The poor old G.P.A. was inadequate, the argument goes, but now we have something reliable, something that will really tell us the student's worth, thus sparing busy selection committees the bother of reading recommendations or personal statements. This claim is anti-intellectual, both because it purports to quantify what cannot be quantified and because it slavishly collaborates with all the tendencies in our society toward defining people via competitive hierarchies."

     Incorporating this "fetish of accuracy" would damage "the atmosphere of trust and academic free play that we still have," Rolleston added. The index might remain inexplicable, "and the students would very quickly perceive it as more arbitrary than the grades themselves, hence resent it strongly." Or it would indeed be explicable, "in which case ambitious students would have a far stronger motive to manipulate it than they do for the G.P.A., which is acknowledged to be a convention."

     Johnson acknowledges an apparent, though not absolute, division of opinion between the two cultures of the campus. "There is a tendency for people who have graded more leniently in the past to oppose the index, and for people who have graded more stringently to favor it," he says.

     Physics professor Lawrence Evans drove home that point in a sardonic Duke Chronicle opinion piece, published after the Arts and Sciences Council vote. Evans observed that although the swing voters in the nineteen-to-fourteen rejection were largely from the social sciences, the representatives from the humanities voted solidly against the index, while the scientists were nearly as solidly for it. His Chronicle column included a department-by-department listing-- originally posted in an electronic discussion of the proposed index--of the percentages of A's and B's assigned last fall. Roughly half of the academic departments and programs, including nearly all of those in the humanities, hardly use the C grade at all. (At 99 percent A's and B's, drama was just slightly above literature, women's studies, dance, art, religion, African and Afro-American studies, and education.)

     "Over the last twenty or so years," as Evans put it, "faculty in these areas have quietly changed their grading system while faculty in other areas more or less retained the old system." His (rather wry) recommendation: a "C-free" grading system. "Those of us in the sciences and other areas whose students are being unfairly penalized by our use of the C grade should cease and desist."

     But in the debate, Peter Lange, chairman of political science, said he's not convinced the G.P.A. system is broken: It's not just that Duke is enrolling academically talented students, but that for the past decade, those students have been permitted to drop study in one "area of knowledge" (such as quantitative reasoning or natural sciences). With curricular freedom of choice, students will veer toward areas in which they are more skilled or more interested--and in which they are likely to score well. Lange also argued that grading differences among departments hinge on introductory courses. With such courses counted out, the variations almost vanish. Humanities surveys may be designed to hook potential majors, while the sciences may view their introductory courses as entry barriers--with different grading practices appropriate to those different pedagogic aims.

     One clear conclusion from the agonizing over the index is that almost no one likes the notion of grades, no matter how they are assigned, weighed, or compared. But as long as students graduate into a grubby world of competition, there's no path to a grade-free paradise.

     "I have no doubt that my grades played a large role in my graduate school acceptances, and in my winning some major fellowships," says one participant in the electronic interchange, mathematics major Robert Schneck. Headed for Cambridge University in the fall, he is one of ten students across the nation to receive a Churchill Scholarship. "For jobs it must be similar: Grades are just a big part of the information potential employers have to go on. So in that sense, it's natural and understandable that students are concerned about their grades, and in particular about the G.P.A. It's a shame, though; it means that students will, without even really giving it thought, avoid classes that they could get bad grades in."

     With an electronic sigh on the Internet, the graduating senior found solace in the words of essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Maybe, suggested Schneck, the final word on achievement indexes belongs to Emerson: "The marking is a system for schools, not for the college; for boys, not for men; and it is an ungracious work to put on a professor."                                                         

For complete coverage of the A.I. debate, check The Chronicle Online at: http://www.chronicle.duke.edu/databank/issues/ai

Illustrations by Walter Stanford

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