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UNC approves contextual grading policy

Changes will affect students entering in 2012 or later

With an average campus grade point average of 3.1, UNC is one of many universities nationwide questioning the true value of a grade point average in the face of grade inflation.

But with a policy that will include contextual information on transcripts, the value of that 3.1 GPA — and of all grades received at UNC — will hinge on the relative performance of a student’s peers.

On Friday, the Faculty Council approved the policy with a 21-13 vote. The change will apply to students entering UNC in 2012 and after.

Under the new policy, each student transcript will include the median grade in each of their classes, the student’s percentile rank compared to peers in the same section and a “scheduled point average”­ ­— the average median grade for all students enrolled in the student’s mix of courses.

The policy will also send grade reports to faculty and publish class grade distributions online.

McKay Coble, chairwoman of the Faculty Council, said the plan was a year in the making.

After the Faculty Council unanimously approved a resolution endorsing expanded grade reports last year, it appointed a committee to create a plan.

Andrew Perrin, associate chairman of the sociology department, served as chairman of the committee. The group drafted the three-pronged policy in an attempt to better portray a student’s performance.

“If the student’s GPA is above their (scheduled point average), then that’s an indication that they did better than the average student would have done in that mix of classes,” Perrin said.

He said instructors will receive a report comparing their grades to those offered by others teaching the same course — and will also show grading trends by department.

Perrin said the policy will also create a publicly available online database featuring a complete distribution of grades in each class.

“Our goal here is to provide full information for grading transparency for each class,” he said.

Coble said the system will help make sense of transcripts.

“If a student has an A, an employer doesn’t know if everyone else had that grade in the class,” she said.

“It’s great for employers to be able to look at transcripts and know what that grade really means.”

Perrin said releasing the information will not hurt students.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say it punishes or undermines students,” he said.

“For every student that it seems to harm because it shows their high GPA was earned in relatively easy classes, it helps another student whose low GPA was earned in relatively difficult classes.”

Perrin said he hopes the policy will encourage students to spend less time in GPA-boosting classes, and that he hopes the faculty reports will promote discussion.

“My hope is ... that administrators will sit down with faculty and say, ‘When you gave 83 percent A’s in the class, did you really mean it?’”

Perrin said other universities expressed interest in implementing similar policies, including the University of Miami and the University of California San Diego. UNC will be a model for the move.

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“This will be received as a pretty important educational quality reform,” he said. “Ultimately, UNC will be seen as really being a leader in this area.”

Coble said talk of grade inflation will not stop with the policy, and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Bruce Carney said the issue might still be up for debate.

“Yes, we give high grades at Carolina, but I’ve heard faculty argue that we have better students than at other places,” he said.

“So maybe that’s not so bad.”

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