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Contextualized grades to now appear on UNC transcripts

Instead of lone letter grades, each grade will be accompanied by that course section’s size, the median grade in the section, the students’ percentile range from the median and the number of grades above, at and below the median score.

Gidi Shemer, a biology professor, said contextualized grading is a big step for both UNC professors and students.

“Not for the very first time, UNC is brave enough to take such initiative to think not just short-term, but long-term, for the benefit of the students,” he said.

Each new transcript will also include a Schedule Point Average, which averages the median grades of the courses a student is taking that semester.

Andrew Perrin, a sociology professor, said the addition of these elements makes transcripts more honest.

He said he has been pushing for the policy since the mid-2000s.

UNC’s Faculty Council passed the initial proposal in 2010 and approved details of the project in 2011. The change was delayed until this semester to make sure the Office of the University Registrar had everything in place.

Perrin said he worked with faculty, administrators and students to hear what grading problems were present and the best ways to fix them.

“I would call it a really elaborate listening process,” he said.“It was a key thing – we wanted to make sure we got it right.”

Perrin said contextualized grading addresses three big problems: grade inflation, grade compression and systematic grading inequality.

Grade inflation is the rise in grades over time. A 2012 study published by Columbia University found 43 percent of grades were A’s in 135 universities. The study said the percentage of A’s given increased 28 percentage points from 1960.

Perrin said the second problem is grade compression, meaning that it’s harder for teachers to provide incentives to students through grades when an A is given for mediocre work.

Systematic grading inequality is the third problem, Perrin said. This means some sections of the same course can be harder or easier.

The change levels the playing field for students in the same class with different professors, said Vishesh Gundappa, a junior biomedical engineering major.

Shemer said contextualized grading takes care of the inconsistencies that exist in any grading policy and allows him to focus on giving grades solely based on performance.

Gundappa said he thinks the policy will make his transcript more transparent when he applies for medical school.

“Especially for students that are science majors, it allows for schools that we’ll be applying to to see how we compare to our peers, more than just to other schools,” he said.

He said since students in his classes often relate their test scores to the class’s average during the semester, it makes sense for the overall grade to be compared to the average as well.

Chris Brown, a junior communication studies major, said he thinks the policy is putting the focus on the wrong things.

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“I think it’s punishing teachers. Just because a class has a grade distribution where students have all A’s and B’s, it doesn’t mean that the content won’t be retained or won’t be useful in life,” he said.

“I think this is another tool in the belt of colleges to have another way for us to compete, not work together at this thing.”

He said the policy will discourage students from taking classes outside of their majors where they might not stack up against classmates.

Shemer said the policy will encourage students to take a risky class where they might receive a lower grade, but still stand out compared to classmates, instead of taking a course for an easy A.

Perrin said UNC is one of the few schools that’s leading an effort to fix grading problems.

“I think it already has contributed to our reputation.”