Weighing in on Plus/Minus grading

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    Freshman radio-TV-film major Jeff Thurber works hard for his grades.He studies about 20 hours a week, more when he has tests, to maintain his 3.2 GPA, a solid B average.

    Under the new system proposed by the Faculty Senate, however, Thurber’s B average could be a plus.

    Under the plus/minus grading system, recommended by the Senate in September 2005, Thurber would be a B+ student.

    Since the debate first began two years ago, the proposed plus/minus system has been one of the most debated and misunderstood issues on campus.

    Under the new system, grades (and GPAs) would fit into 12 grading categories instead of the previous five. Where an A used to mean a 4.0 GPA, under the plus/minus system, a 4.0 would only be reserved for an A+.

    Rounding off the score

    “If it were to change the 4.0, I would be against it,” said Faculty Senate Chair and religion professor Andy Fort in his office. Fort’s six-foot-plus frame rests more against the high-backed office chair than actually in it.

    The new system will not replace the 4.0-GPA scale, Fort said.

    “The fundamental drive of the new system,” Fort said, “is that it allows us a more accurate representation of student performance.”

    According to some, TCU may have to adopt the new system just to keep up with the changing face of education.

    More than 80 percent of U.S. News & World Report’s top 120 schools use some sort of plus/minus system, said David Grant, chair of the religion department at TCU.

    According to Grant, the plus is becoming the standard.

    “Over the past 20 years, there has been a gradual trend toward pluses and minuses,” Grant said.

    It makes sense to you a more narrow grading scale, Grant said.

    “You wouldn’t round off an 94-96 basketball game to the nearest 10, Grant said. “Why would you do it in the classroom?”

    The minus of the plus

    Grant retrieves an overstuffed manila file folder from between some religious textbooks in his office. With transparencies and graphs spread out across a table in his office, Grant’s once-reserved voice gets louder as he talks about the positives of the new system.

    “It will more accurately reflect differing levels of student performance,” Grant said.

    Grant points out that while the some students, like Thurber, will benefit from a “plus” grade, there will be less 4.0 GPAs.

    “It will lower some (GPAs) and raise some,” Grant said, “but the fear of a massive GPA shift is unfounded.”

    On average, in institutions with the system, GPAs differ less than two-hundredths of a point, Grant said.

    Under the plus/minus system, inflation is minor, Grant said.

    Fort also contends that inflation under the new system is minimal.

    “In aggregate,” Fort said, “this will not inflate or deflate grades.”

    Dick Rinewalt, associate professor of Computer Science, disagrees with Fort.

    In three universities, including Clemson University and University of Central Florida, the plus/minus system was shown to cause significant grade inflation, Rinewalt said.

    Rinewalt said this is because professors are more likely to shift over more average marks to higher marks.

    “Under this system, a lot of B+’s become A-‘s,” Rinewalt said.

    Dollars and Cents

    Grant is quick to point out that while a plus/minus system will slightly lower GPAs; he does not think the research suggests it will harm students trying to maintain scholarships.

    “It’ll make 4.0s more discerning,” Grant said, “But it actually represents a differing level of performance.”

    Under the old system, a high B grade is penalized as much as a low B grade. Under the new system, a student with a high B receives a higher GPA.

    According to Grant’s FAQ, “Most schools that have adopted plus/minus do not change GPA requirements for scholarship and financial aid.”

    An FAQ on www.faculty.tcu.edu/grant/plus-minus, a Web site Grant has devoted entirely to the plus/minus debate, contends that a student can make all B+’s and still maintain an academic scholarship.

    “If you’re a good but not quite good student, it’s going to hurt you,” Fort said.

    A great deal of headaches

    The plus/minus system accomplishes too little to be worth adopting, Rinewalt said.

    “Bottom line is, it just means a great deal of headaches for the students and professors,” Rinewalt said.

    Grading is already an imprecise system, and narrowing it will not remedy the problem, Rinewalt said

    Fort disagrees with Rinewalt.

    “That’s an argument out of laziness,” Fort said.

    Moving to a plus/minus system can be a motivator, making students study harder at the end of the semester, Fort said.

    While students often calculate the lowest possible grade to stay within their current average, under a plus/minus system, students will have to study harder to stay in a narrower grade margin, Fort said.

    Students will still try to stay within a certain grade, Rinewalt said.

    “The anxiety level will go up,” Rinewalt said, “but I think it’s silly to think it’s going to make students learn more.”

    A plus/minus system just makes a finer categorization a flawed process, Rinewalt said.

    Representing the best

    A 10-point range between grade letters causes grouping error, making it hard to differentiate the best students from the average students, Grant said.

    “You’re trying to fit a whole range of grades and skills into one of five little holes,” Grant said. “We’re proposing that you open these holes up, so there are more places a grade can fit.”

    While the transition to the new system might shift some borderline GPAs, it is more accurate in the end, said Jason Ratigan, a senior history major.

    “It’s a better representation of your grade,” Ratigan said. “It allows you to differentiate more clearly what is excellence.”

    Ratigan, Academic Affairs chairman for the Student Government Association, said he was immediately pleased with the new system.

    “I liked it from the beginning,” Ratigan said. “My outlook has always been academic, and it seemed obvious that this was a more accurate representation of grades.”

    While Thurber agrees with Ratigan, he sees the shift as a disadvantage.

    “The plus/minus system is only an advantage to the already advantaged,” Thurber said.

    Students often think about how the minus will negatively affect their grades and not about the positives of a plus, Fort said.

    Switching over

    If the resolution is approved, the Faculty Senate would begin implementing the new policy in fall 2007, meaning it will most directly affect current freshman and sophomores, Grant said.

    In order to avoid confusion, the switch would have to be made all at one time. However, grades before the plus/minus system would remain the same, Grant said.

    The new system still faces a number of roadblocks before becoming the new rule at TCU. On March 21, the House of Student Representatives voted not to support a resolution in favor of the system.

    Most of the opinions against the system are based on emotions, Fort said.

    “At first, it’s a visceral response against change,” Fort said. “We’re working to educate people about the system.”

    Grant said the system sells itself.

    “My favorite part of this process is when people realize how much better the new system works,” Grant said.

    While he prefers the old system, Thurber said he sees both sides of the issue.

    “Where it would be nice to have an A+ when I made a 99, it’s nice for a 91 to have the same weight,” Thurber said.