By Mark Mancini
I have been watching with interest the debate about Laurentian’s new grading scheme. As one of the original student representatives that pushed for this new scheme to be adopted, I want to take the opportunity to clear up some misconceptions that have been proliferated about the scheme, by both faculty and students alike.
In the context of the SGA election, some of these misconceptions have been patently incorrect.
First, a bit of history is in order.
I, along with one of my Senate colleagues at the time, were approached by students about a number of issues with Laurentian’s old grading scheme. The concerns surrounded the fact that the old scheme was quite arbitrary; what distinguished an 85% from an 84%, especially on subjective essays? This arbitrariness was compounded by a concern with professors “capping” grades. The old system did not allow for students to receive a particular grade in the upper or lower registers of the system—considering that the range for A in the old system was between 80-100, for example, exceptional students were actually punished by not being able to receive an A+. It was also largely out of step with many grading systems across the country. This was all underlined by the fact that the grading scheme hadn’t been amended since the 70s. The time had come to do something about it.
The concerns raised by students largely were concurrent with my experiences as a student. So, we moved forward. We spent about two years working on the grading system, along with faculty and administration; through Senate committees, Senate, and the larger university community. We consulted with students throughout the process. The new scheme was adopted by Senate after two years of debate. At the time, students were quite happy.
Now, I see that public opinion (or at least, an emerging point of view), has changed. Now, there is a concern that the grades reported by letter grade are not accurate. There is a problem with letter grades, in the words of the opponents of the scheme, because they are not accurate.
A few things on this. First, letter grades remove the arbitrariness that plagued the old system. Now, students get a range (for example, in the A range), which better reflects the range of possibilities that could arise in the context of an essay. As a student, I would rather have that margin of error. There might be a time when you score slightly above what would be required for a B+, for example. It doesn’t matter if there is another individual who scored in the upper B+ range; you both would receive the same B+. This is a nice security trade-off in a world where grades mean everything.
More importantly, professors can (and likely still do), report grades to students in percentages on assignments. It is only the final grade that is reported to students in the letter grade, which again provides a range for students to land in. This, in my opinion, is more psychometrically accurate.
The arbitrariness of percentages undermines the need to know the exact grade. Does it really matter if you got 85% or 84%? Or, does it matter more than you scored in a certain range, with a certain class of students? I would say the latter is more important.
The efforts as of late to repeal the grading scheme are unfortunate. It is even more unfortunate to see some student leaders speaking out against the grading scheme. It would be better, as SGA President Johnny Humphrey did in a recent Lambda article, to weigh the concerns with implementation against the original objectives of the grading scheme. It very well may be the case that the scheme was not implemented in the best possible way. Perfection, however, is not of this world. This can be fixed. Unfortunately, not all student politicians have taken the balanced route that the President did.
Senate was wise, in its recent meeting, to reject a motion to do away with the grading scheme. With time, students will come to see that it makes sense. Any change is sometimes hard to swallow. Indeed, as a student now at the University of New Brunswick, it took me a while to get used to the letter grade system at that school. But, after my first round of exams, I was often a beneficiary of the margin of error I described above. When you are graded on a curve, it’s great to know that getting a B+ is the same B+ as a person who conceivably did better than you. Further, it was my understanding that from a scholarships point of view, it didn’t matter; percentages were still converted into letter grades, anyhow.
People don’t want to have their academic lives turned upside down, and I certainly understand how some students could feel that we did wrong by them in pursuing this new scheme.
But, the new scheme represents student interests. It ultimately reflects two years of consultation. Is it perfect? No. But nothing is. With time, this change will find its place in the university.
Let’s give the system time to work.
Editors note: Mark Mancini is a Laurentian University alumnus, who served as the Students’ General Association Vice President of Issues in the 2013-2014 school year. Prior to that, Mancini served as SGA Senator, and is now pursuing law studies at the University of New Brunswick.