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The Dialogue


Should colleges and universities do more to standardize the grading practices of professors?


grades are too important to students to be treated in an arbitrary manner.

Shauna Lee Manning

Grades are incredibly important to students. Yet we have no standardization in this important mechanism we use regularly to evaluate student work.

Some faculty grade on a curve, meaning at least one student will get an A. Others use a point system, so it is possible that no one will get an A. Some professors give an assignment when the semester begins and use that as a baseline to grade students on their improvement or lack thereof over the semester. Others give “extra credit” so that a grade can be improved. Occasionally, a teacher will use contractual grading—each student starts the course with an “A” and gets demerits if they do not fulfill the assignments—as a way of not grading.

Some students worry over their GPA and take fewer risks to avoid the possible negative impact that taking harder courses might have on their standing. However, most students actually do like grades. At UMass Boston, we have one college that doesn’t give grades, using competencies instead that students either pass or don’t pass. Students who do more than their colleagues are dismayed when their work is not recognized with a higher grade.

I have taken courses where I worked the hardest and learned the most and ended up with a hard-won B. Other classes were easy As, but I didn’t learn as much. Someone reading my transcript probably won’t guess that the “B” course knowledge is still with me, while another “A” course did not make much of an impression because I did not have to work as hard.

Grades are the shorthand we use to determine academic achievement. With such high stakes, we should have a way of standardizing grading so we are not comparing apples and oranges.

-Shauna Lee Manning is president of the Classified Staff Union, an NEA and Mass Teachers Association affiliate at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and an educational support professional in American Studies, Communication Studies, and Women's Studies in the College of Liberal Arts.


standardizing grading imposes uniformity on the diverse, individualistic enterprise of teaching.

June Sager Speakman

Frustration about grading practices often runs high, particularly at the end of the semester. Students complain about the wildly different grading schemes of their professors. Faculty members seen as “hard graders” lose enrollments to their colleagues whom students see as “easy graders.” The dean fields a call from the angry parent whose child has never gotten anything below an A, and now has received a D in an art history course. Should universities attempt to address these problems by standardizing grading practices? Absolutely not.

Grading practices do vary widely across the academy. Some of us provide extra credit opportunities, allow re-takes, deduct points for absences, or grade to a curve; others do not. These choices are driven by individual teaching and assessment philosophies, often by a professor’s personal view of what it takes to encourage excellence in our students. Just as academic freedom protects what goes on in our classroom, so too should it protect how we grade. Attempts to standardize grading would be unwise, probably futile, and—given the differences among disciplines—impracticable.

Instead, universities and colleges should cultivate a culture of academic excellence. Faculty should come to consensus on what constitutes mastery of their discipline, and each course should have a clear set of learning objectives. Beyond that, though, we must trust our colleagues to determine how to move students towards those objectives and how to measure that movement.

For their part, faculty members must communicate their grading philosophy and practice clearly, and exercise that practice fairly. Students have a right to know why they received the grade they did, and they must have faith in the integrity of the process.

-June Sager Speakman is the Wilf Professor of Political Science at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island, where she has taught for 15 years. She is the president-elect of the Roger Williams University Faculty Association, an affiliate of NEA Rhode Island.

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