MISHRA: Grading by numbers

As a junior, I don’t have much of a standing to sue over any decision to change the grading system — the proposed changes would only go into effect after my graduation. However, the proposed system has merits that are overlooked by the 79 percent of the student body against numerical grading. I do not intend to advocate one system over another, but I want to add balance to the debate about grading policy based on my experience with the proposed scale in high school.

Grades serve two main practical functions. They hold us accountable for learning material presented in class and signal the degree that we have learned course material. In high school, the 59-100 scale pushed me to be more diligent. Each small detail of a subject could represent a couple of points on a test. Since getting to college, however, I sometimes find myself completing just enough work to pass the minimum threshold to get an A.

The current system enables such behavior. Our current grading system does not reward someone for taking any initiative on the micro level. Consider most large economics lecture courses: Around 37 percent of the class receives an A- or A, and the top 15% of the class gets an A. Because of our current grading system, a student in the top 35 percent of the class gets the same grade as a student in the top 17. So why work to be at the top of your class? When initiative is not rewarded, we are not always inclined to take extra academic initiative.

This example ties well into the second practical use for grades: signaling accomplishment in a course both to the student and external parties. An A in a seminar where 7 other students received an A is not equivalent to an A in a higher level math class where maybe 5 of 30 students get an A. Relative standing is more informative than absolute standing. Why not change to a system that allows students to differentiate themselves on a point-by-point level?

Moreover, the 59-100 scale gives students a better idea of their relative standing in a class, helping them more easily predict their final grade. I have taken a few final exams in college completely unsure of what my final grade in the class could be. The proposed scale would increase the transparency of this process. Students would know what to expect as a final grade, since their grades throughout the semester would be indexed on the same 59-100 scale.

The major critique of the proposed system is it will make Yale too cutthroat. Based on my experience in high school, I respectfully disagree. The nature of the 4.0 scale lends itself to more intense competition. Students compete with one another to perform better than around 80 percent of the class to get an A. In other words, you need to remember material that 80 percent of the class does not know. That’s more competitive than a system with more nuanced distinctions.

I never felt like was in a rat race in high school when it came to grades. The effort I put into a class matched the numerical grade I received. Some students worry that small differences in GPA will alter how external parties, like employers or graduate programs, evaluate their academic performance. But my high school classmates and I went through the college admissions process with grades on a 59-100 scale, and friends with higher and lower GPAs than I had all now attend great schools. I don’t see an employer denying a student a job solely because she has a 93.4 GPA as opposed to a 94.3.

Implementing the new grading scale would be an administrative and cultural challenge, but those issues should only be discussed if the new system is implemented. Ultimately, from my experience in high school, a numerical grading scale induces a greater depth of learning. Numerical grades allow for accurate differentiation among students without significantly increasing the stress level on campus. Nevertheless, regardless of our grading scale, we still all attend one of the greatest universities in the world. As my residential college dean so aptly put it, sometimes “the only ‘A’ that matters is the ‘A’ in Yale.”

Harsha Mishra is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at harsha.mishra@yale.edu .

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