Grading

When I first came to the United States as an undergraduate in the fall of 1990, I discovered that course grades, given as letters from A through D (with F for failure) had numerical equivalents.* That is, an A was worth 4, a B worth 3, a C worth 2, and a D worth 1 (with an F, of course, counting for nothing). Over the course of your undergraduate career, you built up something called a “Grade Point Average” – your performance in each class was averaged over the total number of classes you had taken, producing a number out of 4. Very rarely did anyone graduate with a GPA of 4.0, although our valedictorian managed to. I myself finished with a 3.75, which was enough for the Latin honors “magna cum laude” (top 15% of the class) and membership in Phi Beta Kappa (roughly top 10%). Yay me! Although I missed out on “summa cum laude” (top 5% of the class) and would probably not have been admitted to Yale Law School should I have applied there.

But I should qualify this. At Dartmouth, plusses and minuses came into the equation. That is, grades were fine tuned – you could get an A, but if your performance wasn’t quite as stellar as the professor was hoping, your A was lowered to an A-. Similarly, if your work was in the B range, but still quite good compared to other grades in the B range, you got a B+ (if it was pretty bad compared with other grades in the B range, you got a B-, and if it was just average, then you got a straight B, with no plus or minus). And so on down the line. There was no grade of A+, and as far as I can remember no grade of D- either. This fine tuning was reflected in the numerical values accorded to each grade: an A- was worth 3.67 (one third down from an A), while a B+ was worth 3.33 (one third up from a B), and so on.

When I started my Ph.D. program at the University of Minnesota, grades were given as straight A, B, C, D, and F. By the time I finished they had adopted the fine-tuning of grades with plusses and minuses, with the same numerical values that I had remembered from Dartmouth. Not that I paid much attention to grades by this point; I was just looking to get my dissertation done and get out.

So I thought that this is simply how it was – you could give straight, undifferentiated grades, with values equating to integers between 1 and 4, or allow fine tuning with plusses and minuses, with values subdivided by thirds.

But lately I have discovered (on page 82) that LaGrange College of LaGrange, Georgia doesn’t quite measure things this way. That is, in their system, a B is still worth 3, but a B+ is worth 3.25, and a B- is worth 2.75. So you’re not as rewarded for a plus, or as punished for a minus, as you would have been had you gotten such grades at Dartmouth or the University of Minnesota. Note, however, that even in this system, you can go up as well as down, and by the same amount.

So I must say that I was shocked and dismayed to discover that Mercer University of Macon, Georgia does things rather… eccentrically. That is, they allow plusses, but have simply eliminated the possibility of getting a minus! Here is the whole sordid mess from their catalogue:

Grade
Interpretation
Quality Points
Per Credit Hour
A
Excellent
4.0
B+
Good
3.5
B
Good
3.0
C+
Average
2.5
C
Average
2.0
D
Poor
1.0

You’ll note that in addition to eliminating minuses, they reward a plus with a full half-point, greater than a plus would be worth at a real university.

This is awful. Who came up with this, and how did it get approved? Why hasn’t SACS said anything? This is truly an example of the Lake Wobegon idea that “everyone is above average” (or worse, every snowflake deserves a participation trophy). You can’t have plusses without minuses! The possibility of getting your grade raised has to be offset by the possibility of getting it lowered. Otherwise, it is just an example of officially sanctioned grade inflation, presumably for the sake of maintaining students’ athletic eligibility or for protecting their precious self-esteem.

I swear that if such a system is ever adopted at Reinhardt, I will never award a plus grade. For the sake of academic honesty and integrity, I will simply operate under the assumption that our current system, a straight A, B, C, and D system, still prevails.

* In Canada, in high school at least, you got a grade out of 100, which was converted into a letter if need be, which was slightly different from the American system: in the US, an A is in the 90s, a B in the 80s, a C in the 70s, and a D in the 60s, while in Canada, an A was any grade between 80 and 100, a B in the 70s, a C in the 60s, and D in the 50s. My freshman-year roommate laughed at this, suggesting that Canada was soft, but it just seemed to me that teachers in Canada could grade more honestly. (Not that anyone paid much attention to the letter grades; it was the number out of 100 that counted.)