Disturbing discrepancies

Grading differences between departments can cause issues for Arts and Science students

A town-hall meeting was held Tuesday night by ASUS to gauge student opinion on the 2012-13 Arts and Science grades report.
A town-hall meeting was held Tuesday night by ASUS to gauge student opinion on the 2012-13 Arts and Science grades report.
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Adam Grotsky, ArtSci ‘15

Arts and Science students who major in political studies and classics will leave Queen’s with the same degree: a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Arts (Honours).

Despite that, a 20 per cent difference exists between the number of A-pluses earned in the two departments.

The 2012-13 Arts and Science grades report, which was released this April, confirms what many students have believed for some time: departments are plagued by grading discrepancies.

The median grade in the french deparment sits at an A-minus; in chemistry, it creeps down to a B-minus. 1.4 per cent of grades in political studies are an A-plus; that number soars to 21.6 per cent in classics.

In fine arts, less than one per cent of students receive failing grades; in computing, the number of failing grades is unnervingly at 7.4 per cent.

Grading discrepancies in the Faculty of Arts and Science are affecting many students’ chances at future schooling, and it’s time to address it. How? By placing class averages, or medians, on official transcripts.

A political studies professor might cite the prestige of their department to justify a stricter grading regime. A classics professor might turn to their quality of teaching to explain the abundance of A-pluses. But who’s right?

In my opinion, there’s no right or wrong department. Political studies also has a high quality of teaching, just as classics is prestigious in its own domain.

There’s no right or wrong department — what’s “wrong” is that students are suffering as a result.

I believe that when students are selecting their degrees, programs and courses, they should be able to pursue their passions and interests. I say “should be”, because if my passion is politics but my future aspiration is law school, the department’s grading culture leaves me at an inherent disadvantage.

Some professors have argued that the byproduct of increasing A-pluses is grade inflation.

However, political studies students are graduating from Queen’s with the same degree as students from other Arts departments. Moreover, post-graduate programs will measure them to the same standard as students in those other Arts departments.

Consequently, political studies students — and students in other departments with similar grading practices — are facing the opposite: grade deflation.

Grade inflation should not lead to a fear of recognizing a student’s ability to achieve academic excellence. High-level work should be rewarded with high marks; this statement needs to hold true regardless of which department a student is in.

With vastly different departmental cultures and the need to respect autonomy of professors as graders, placing class averages, or medians, on transcripts remains the most pragmatic solution.

Currently, a grade on a transcript is an arbitrary number. Grading discrepancies have created an environment whereby, without a measure of comparison, it’s difficult to gauge a student’s true level of success.

A class average juxtaposed with a student’s individual mark would offer schools and employers a method of comparison that provides a better reflection of performance.

This idea sounds simple enough, so why isn’t it being done? Actually, up until about five years ago, it was.

At that point, a decision was made by the Faculty of Arts and Science to remove class averages from transcripts. This decision rested heavily on two concerns.

First, if a student appealed to drop a course after the academic deadline, it could change the class average; this would make all transcripts printed prior to the drop inaccurate.

Second, averages in smaller courses could be heavily skewed by a student with an anomalous grade that was either far above or below the rest.

Solutions exist to address those concerns. For example, rather than using class averages, the Faculty can explore the feasibility of using course medians. This would likely combat both post-deadline drops and anomalous grades.

Another option to explore is excluding averages when a class size is below a certain number. Other Canadian universities, such as the University of Waterloo and Western University, currently employ this practice.

Fortunately, the Faculty of Arts and Science has demonstrated a willingness to acknowledge that grading discrepancies are an issue. Further, they’ve been receptive to discussing recommendations proposed by the Arts and Science Undergraduate Society (ASUS).

After extensive consultation that included online forums, a town hall meeting and discussion at Department Student Council (DSC) Assembly, ASUS has been given a strong directive from the student body to pursue the instatement of class averages or medians on transcripts.

All Arts and Science students deserve an equal opportunity to pursue future schooling, and the inclusion of class averages or medians on transcripts is a necessary step towards achieving this principle.

I’m hopeful that a future implementation of this recommendation will reignite students to pursue their passions, regardless of numbers written in the depths of a grades report.

Adam Grotsky is president of ASUS.

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