Faculty postpone vote on grading overhaul

Yale College Dean Mary Miller walks past students protesting proposed changes to grading outside Thursday’s faculty meeting.
Yale College Dean Mary Miller walks past students protesting proposed changes to grading outside Thursday’s faculty meeting. Photo by Jennifer Cheung .

As students protested outside Thursday evening’s Yale College faculty meeting, professors voted to table a proposal to change Yale’s grading system until next fall.

At the meeting, which was held in Davies Auditorium, roughly 150 professors voted on proposals of the Yale College ad-hoc committee on grading, including the adoption of a 100-point grading scale and a suggested rubric of grade distributions. Though the faculty chose to adopt measures to increase grade transparency in Yale College — such as releasing grade statistics internally to departments — Miller said concerns about lack of student input and the potential ramifications of a new grading policy on Yale’s academic and extracurricular culture led professors to send proposals that would fundamentally change the grading system back to the committee for further consideration.

Miller said she will appoint student representatives to the committee in the fall, and the new committee will present its recommendations at next November’s faculty meeting.

“There was the feeling that we needed more time to consider this,” Miller said. “There was the desire to have more student engagement before such a major change would be voted on by the faculty and the desire to digest and continue to think about the consequences.”

Miller convened the grading committee in the fall to examine grading trends across the University. In its preliminary report presented at February’s faculty meeting, the committee revealed that 62 percent of grades awarded in Yale College last spring fell within the A-range and noted that grades have been steadily rising over the past 40 years. The report also noted severe discrepancies across departments, with STEM majors having a lower average GPA than students in the humanities and social sciences.

Based on the data, the committee, chaired by economics professor Ray Fair, drafted a set of proposals to minimize the “cliffs” that exaggerate the difference between a B-plus and A-minus and to curb potential grade inflation. The report recommended the college adopt a numerical grading scale and suggested a set of guidelines that would allot 35 percent of grades for the 90 to 100 range, 40 percent for the 80 to 89 range, 20 percent for the 70 to 79 range, 4 to 5 percent for the 60 to 69 range and less than 1 percent at 59.

“If you’re going to change the system at Yale from what we now have with respect to the clustering of A’s and A-minuses, you’re probably going to have to change the units of currency,” Fair said.

Miller said the conversation at the faculty meeting was lively. Though she said she thought action to address grade-compression trends drew substantive support from faculty, she added that several professors were concerned with the committee’s approach.

Faculty interviewed expressed mixed views about the committee’s report, and many said they were concerned that the proposed grading changes would negatively impact Yale’s academic culture.

English professor Leslie Brisman said numerical grades would be detrimental for departments and courses in which papers are the primary assignments.

“What they are trying to do is quantify things that can’t be quantified,” Brisman said. “The effect is to degrade the enterprise. It turns something which ought to be about ideas into something which is about a checklist of items.”

The faculty meeting attracted student attention as well. On Monday, the Yale College Council circulated an official response to the committee’s proposal, calling for the faculty to reject or postpone proposed changes to the grading system.

Earlier this week Josh Kalla ’14 and Baobao Zhang ’13, a former multimedia editor for the News, circulated a petition to the student body protesting the proposal, which drew approximately 1,300 signatures. Outside the faculty meeting, Scott Stern ’15, who is a columnist for the News, organized a protest that attracted approximately 60 students, holding signs and handing out leaflets to faculty members as they entered.

Miller said she thinks the faculty was impressed by the strength of student opinion, adding that there will be more student input in the committee’s decision going forward. She added that she looks forward to seeing campus discussion on grading continue.

“One of the things that is always so very good about having the sort of truly robust conversation that we had was that people learn from one another over the course of the meeting,” Miller said.

Of the eight Ivy League universities, Princeton is the only one to enforce grade distributions.

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