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Two B-School Profs Make The Case Against Letter Grades

GPA, grades

Hello Professor, I could imagine that getting emails around this time of the year from students is one of the least desirable positions to be in as a professor. . . .

Such begin the emails that overwhelm the inboxes of professors during our Winter break. What follows are arguments from students for grade adjustments that range from expositions in ingenious grade calculations, creative reinterpretations of their submitted essays, outright pleading and offers that occasionally approach bribery. This hyperbole should not hide the fact that the student’s angst is justified. The traditional letter grading system is an anachronism that distills student performance into a pithy statistic by needlessly reducing information about their performance. This system punishes students and compels them to unduly pressure their professors.

A student seeking a grade accommodation is invariably stuck on the wrong side of a letter-grade cutoff – the entirely abstract line that demarcates the territory of the A- from that of the B+. She or he is usually within a fraction of a percentage of the threshold, sometimes even landing at an 89.99 where a 90.00 is required to make the grade. This might boil down to a single ambiguous question on a quiz or a somewhat arbitrary assignment of a participation point. 

HOW A ONE-HUNDREDTH DIFFERENCE RESULTS IN A EITHER A 3.3 GPA OR A 3.7 GPA

Consider that the difference between 89.99 and 90.00 represents just one-hundredth of one percentage point difference in performance. This would be entirely irrelevant in any reasonable judgment between two individuals. Yet the former translates to a B+ worth 3.3 in GPA calculations, while the latter rewards the student with a 3.7; a 10% percentage point difference on what goes into the student’s record! The venerable letter-grade system has multiplied the actual difference by 1,000 times. Sloppy statistical methodology like this would never be tolerated in our academic research papers. Modern computing and software tools make such approaches unjustifiable. 

The loss of data that this antiquated system creates is not inconsequential. In many cases, a lesser letter-grade may disqualify a perfectly good student from admission to a graduate program, cause them to lose scholarship funding or prevent them from getting their dream job. These effects could damage the entire career path and life outcome of an individual. Because as obviously flawed the grading system may be, our larger society still rewards A-’s more than the B+’s. Even a willing professor must resist rounding up the borderline cases, as doing so would open them up to the argument of why a friend’s 89.97 made the new cutoff whereas her 89.96 did not. Engaging in that slippery slope leads to grade inflation, a problem that has resulted in mandated class GPA averages, a system that makes it even harder for faculty to fairly grade their classes.

Better methods are close at hand. Colleges and universities could simply adopt a digital grading system and call an 89.99 an “89.99,” which is much more accurate and informative than labeling it a “B+.” GPA should be replaced with a simple averaging of accumulated digital scores, which we propose to call the Digital Grade Average or DGA.

THE OPPORTUNITY COSTS OF THE CURRENT GRADING SYSTEM

This approach offers a more logistically pleasant—and predictable—practice of academic evaluation. For instance, if a graduate program intends to admit 200 students in a given year and employs a GPA cutoff (for example, a 3.5 or above), it will often find itself splitting hairs to differentiate the qualified applicants. 110 might make the cut or they could be slogging through 900 students. It would be better to rank applicants by DGA and evaluate an appropriate sample using more holistic criteria.

The unseen opportunity cost of our current grading system is huge. Students waste valuable study time obsessing over letter-grade distributions. Professors construct courses to defend against disgruntled end-of-term students and still waste time dealing with them. Society remains addicted to reductive assessments and they drive inferior judgment attributions. The persistence of letter-grades is a manifestation of a broader lack of attention to teaching in our research-focused universities. This is unacceptable in the information age of the 21st century. 

Greg Autry is an Assistant Clinical Professor in the Lloyd Greif Center in the Marshall School of Business at USC and coauthor of “Death by China.”

Laura Huang is the MBA Class of 1954 Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and author of “Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage”

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