Professors debate raising standards for A#039;s and B#039;s

by Beacon Staff • April 8, 2009

A new report from an Emerson professors' task force suggests A's and B's should-and could-be harder to earn.

The study, released in January by Emerson's Task Force on Quality Baccalaureate Education, revealed that 49.8 percent of grades awarded to students during the 2006-2007 academic year were A's, prompting the question of whether grade inflation is a problem worth addressing among faculty and students. Written by the Task Force's Subcommittee on Baccalaureate Excellence, the report was compiled to investigate what comprises excellence in the overall college experience, and determine if Emerson is meeting those requirements.

The report lists four areas in which the Collegiate Learning Assessment says college graduates should excel: critical thinking, analytic reasoning, written communication and problem solving. In addition, the report lists additional areas unique to Emerson in which students should also excel: creative thinking, visual and oral communication, social and cultural awareness, information literacy, ethics and values, and professional accountability.

While the report makes recommendations for the improvement of six different areas associated with the college, more than 12 of its 28 pages are devoted to the issue of grade inflation.

"This has been an eternal issue at Emerson, it's been like that since I started," said professor Thomas Cooper of the visual and media arts department. Cooper, who is a member of the subcommittee that produced the report, said grade inflation is a problem because it distracts from excellence, which is important for the college's reputation and credibility.

In 2007, almost half of the graduating class received some form of Latin Honors, a marked increase from 2003 where they were awarded to roughly a third of graduates.

Emerson's focus on the arts may be the reason why grading can appear to be flexible, said junior media production major Rachel Rosenblatt.

"The atmosphere at Emerson is less academic. It's less about your GPA, but it's more about experience," she said.

Junior Scott Sinclair agreed, and said it's difficult to grade someone on their artistic work.

"I feel like a lot of the classes are based on artistic vision more than knowledge," the theater studies major said. "Professors have a hard time taking points off your artistic vision."

Students who are not among the large number of A-receivers are almost guaranteed to earn B's. In the 2004-2005 academic year approximately 86 percent of students received at least a B in courses taught by full-time faculty members; in courses taught by part-time faculty, the number goes up to 90 percent.

"The data speaks for itself as to the seriousness of the problem," said William Donoghue, an associate professor in the writing, literature and publishing department, and chair of the Subcommittee on Baccalaureate Excellence.

The report found that "outstanding" students are the ones who primarily transfer from Emerson, often saying in exit surveys that one of their top reasons for leaving is because their courses or instructors were not challenging.

Donoghue said one of the harmful affects of grade inflation is that it cheapens the value of a good grade.

"The people who are principally hurt by grade inflation are students doing distinguished work that is not being distinguished by their grade," he said.

Emerson is just one of many colleges and universities addressing grade inflation at their institution. Princeton University enacted a policy that caps undergraduate A's at 35 percent of all grades; similarly, Wellesley College now caps the average grade in basic undergraduate courses at a B-plus.

Adele Wolfson, an Associate Dean of the College at Wellesley, said in an e-mail message the rule does not mean that a B-plus is the highest grade a student can receive, but means that the entire class average should not be higher than a B-plus.

"Faculty report that the policy has had a positive effect on their ability to give meaningful grades," she said.

Junior Janine Seidel said she feels it's fine for a lot of students to get A's if they deserve the grade.

"I believe they should focus on whether the students are earning A's. If [thirty] students earn thirty A's, then thirty A's is fine," the marketing communication major said. "But it varies from teacher to teacher. Some teachers are very academic, and some teachers give out whatever grade they feel like and don't really care."

There is currently no plan to overhaul the academic policy at Emerson in regards to grade inflation. A faculty retreat co-sponsored by Academic Affairs and the Faculty Assembly is scheduled for the end of the semester, where faculty will have an opportunity to discuss grade inflation, among other issues, in more detail.

Eric Schaefer, chair of the Task Force and the visual and media arts department, said the faculty needs to read the report, digest its recommendations and then decide what actions should be taken in the best interests of the students.

"Reports are meant to start discussion about a variety of issues," he said. "They are not meant to be a drop-dead decree on anything."