As most members of the University community now know, the Arts and Sciences council voted on March 13 against a proposal to distribute information concerning grade distributions and grade adjustments to faculty and students. In the interim, opponents of the proposal-members of Duke Student Government, The Chronicle's editorial staff, most members of the Arts and Sciences Council, and many other students-have called for a continuation of the discussion of grade reform. As a proponent of the defeated measure, I am perplexed as to how this discussion is to continue.
With only a little thought, it is immediately clear that there are two approaches that might be taken in reforming our grading system. The first is to encourage faculty to modify their grading practices and adhere to a "common" grading standard. The second is to make post-hoc adjustments to assigned grades to account for differences in faculty grading policies. The Achievement Index is an example of reform of the second kind. Among adjustment methods, it is the most accurate available, according to all reasonable criteria. The primary disadvantage of this method is that students and faculty at the University are not familiar with the Achievement Index (or other adjustment methods), and so are uncomfortable with the prospect of its adoption. The Council's motion was designed partially to overcome this problem by offering the University community a chance to examine their adjusted grades and make a more informed decision as to whether they felt the adjustments were fair. Many faculty, fearing that their grades might eventually be adjusted downwards, found this proposal so threatening that they defeated the AI-initiative, thus denying all the opportunity to examine this information. As a result, information concerning grade distributions and possible grade adjustments will probably not be made generally available to either students or faculty.
Many opponents of the Achievement Index now profess allegiance to the first approach. To adopt such reforms and establish a common grading standard at Duke, however, faculty would have to agree on either explicit or implicit constraints on mean classroom grades; acceptable adjustments to these constraints based on classroom size, probably with further adjustments for ability levels of students within a class; and, importantly, some mechanism to enforce the resulting guidelines. Many, if not most, faculty would object to such constraints as a violation of academic freedom. In addition, few faculty would be willing to relinquish any aspect of faculty governance, as would likely be required for the resolution of the latter issue. Even if one makes the rather wild assumption that these two issues might be resolved, are we not still left with problems of specifying both a common grading standard and the circumstances under which this standard might not be applied? Without dissemination of the type of information proposed in the March 13 Council motion, how can these guidelines be determined and then agreed upon?
Of the two approaches towards grade reform, post-hoc adjustment of grades is certainly the most innocuous from both the faculty and student perspective. It requires no behavioral modification by faculty, who are free to grade as they always have. Furthermore, grades assigned by those faculty who adhere to a "common" standard would not be affected by grade adjustments, even if such adjustments were made.
From a student perspective, post-hoc adjustment of grades also seems less intrusive than adoption of a common grading standard. The primary objection voiced by students to Achievement-Index adjustments is that such adjustments would increase the competitiveness of the academic environment at Duke, making Duke too much like those other universities. (Those other universities use standard GPA, don't they?) In point of fact, the competitive effect introduced by the AI-adjustments are negligible, and actually favor cooperative study a bit more than the current system. Compare this to the effect of establishing, say, a mean classroom grading standard of 3.0. Under the AI initiative, an instructor is free to increase the grade of one student in a class without lowering the grade of another; with constraints on mean classroom grades, every increase in one student's grade must inevitably be linked to the decrease of another's.
Whether one favors adoption of a common grading standard or post-hoc adjustment of grades, it is clear that dissemination of information concerning grade distributions, as proposed in the March 13 Council motion, is essential for progress towards grade reform. For this reason, I find the plea made by opponents of the AI-initiative to continue the discussion of grade reform entirely disingenuous. Almost without exception, faculty opposing this initiative represent those departments most responsible for the problem. I suspect also that the most vocal student opposition to the initiative originated with those students who have benefited most from the current system.
Perhaps I am mistaken, and the opponents of the AI-initiative are generally interested in grade reform. If so, I anxiously await their counterproposal.
Val Johnson is an associate professor of statistics and the architect of the AI.