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Berkeley may borrow from UNC’s contextual grading

UNC’s move to combat grade inflation by adding context to transcripts hasn’t gone unnoticed.

In the days after the University’s 2011 decision to pursue contextual transcripts, UNC’s registrar got calls from dozens of universities.

And now, the University of California, Berkeley — the flagship institution of one of the largest public university systems in the nation — is likely to make a similar move, school administrators said.

There, contextual grading would be implemented in the fall, and faculty leaders are in the early stages of discussing logistics.

Planning took hold after Andrew Perrin, a sociology professor who has led the push for contextual grading at UNC, visited Berkeley in the fall of 2012. He spoke about UNC’s contextual transcripts, which are slated to debut in the fall.

The idea sparked discussion at Berkeley, where conversations about grades and their meaning had already been taking place. Soon, contextual grading was on the table.

“There’s been a lot of pressure from students for a clearly identifiable metric,” said Bob Jacobsen, an associate dean who has been working on the project.

Grade inflation is a nationwide trend, and the subject of much debate in higher education. Research shows a clear increase in students’ grade point averages in recent decades.

To tackle it, timing was key for Berkeley, which is rebuilding its student computing system.

“I think we’ll be spending between now and next January working out the details,” Jacobsen said. “Roughly a year from now, the decision would be made to implement.”

Ron Cohen, chairman of Berkeley’s committee on educational policy, said UNC’s transcript was the only one Berkeley examined closely.

Steve Martin, dean of biological sciences, said leaders at Berkeley liked the systematic nature of UNC’s transcript.

But it was too complicated, Cohen said. Instead, Berkeley wants something easier for the uninitiated to read.

UNC, too, is working to make the transcript readable. Perrin said much of this summer will be spent trying to make the transcript most useful for its consumers.

Grade inflation and inequitable grade distribution are both problems at UNC, Perrin said.

“Inflation itself has slowed down for the simple reason that we’re hitting a ceiling,” he said.

UNC’s average GPA is 3.2.

The University’s first step in contextual grading, the instructor grading pattern dashboard, is complete. It allows professors to view grade distributions from all classes, departments and other professors, increasing system transparency.

What adds complexity to the conversation about grading is that a GPA can mean different things for different departments.

“I think as people have recognized more and more the flaws in it as a measure, it’s probably lost some of its magic,” Perrin said.

But some students are concerned that if UNC succeeds in pushing down grades, it will hurt them in markets outside the University, Perrin said.

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“I do think that getting some added prestige for being the University that’s actually doing something about this will actually counteract that possible effect,” he said.

UNC’s transcript will undergo significant testing, said Chris Derickson, University registrar.

“We need to make absolutely certain that the information put out there is going to be understood and that we understand what all the implications could be for every student,” he said.

And because UNC’s work is already attracting attention, Derickson said, getting it right is even more important.

“If we don’t, we’re missing a golden opportunity to be the flagbearer,” he said.

But transcripts with more context are not a definite cure all, leaders said.

“Oh no, it’s not the end. The fact that B’s mean different things in biology and history will still go on,” Jacobsen said. “But it removes the argument about numbers, which are not important, and moves the discussion to what grades really mean, and that’s much more interesting.”

Contact the desk editor at state@dailytarheel.com.

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