Grading committee drops numerical system

Since the faculty tabled the proposal for switching to numerical grades last spring, the Ad-Hoc Committee on Grading has turned its attention to less provocative ideas for grade reform.

In Thursday’s Yale College faculty meeting, grading committee chair and economics professor Ray Fair officially announced to a room of around 75 professors that the grading committee would not pursue a number system any further, according to Yale College Dean Mary Miller. While Miller said the purpose of Fair’s presentation was largely to present interim findings and collect faculty input on grading, philosophy professor Shelly Kagan said the committee gave the impression that it had rejected the idea of enforcing a “one-size-fits-all grade distribution.” Instead, Kagan said the committee seemed fixed on the idea of proposing different recommendations for entry-level, mid-level and advanced-level courses as a recognition of the fact that courses with older and more self-selecting students may warrant a different grading spread than introductory lectures.

The grading committee said it was still “batting ideas around,” according to Kagan. Though the committee presented several models, the proposal for stratified grading was the most developed, he said.

“There are some uncooked ideas. This sounded far more cooked,” Kagan said.

The meeting had a “reflective and calm” tenor, Miller said, with the discussion of grades taking up only 30 to 40 minutes of the 90-minute-long meeting.

This was a departure from the “contentious” faculty meeting last April, Kagan said, when the vote on the grading committee’s proposal to convert grades to a number system was postponed after a protracted debate that saw a swirl of proposed modifications to the resolution and provoked student protests.

In a Wednesday email to the News, history professor Fabian Drixler said that he saw the value in a number system because the letter grade system is burdened by high school connotations.

Since the letter grade system is already charged with meaning in high school, many Yale students think of anything below an A as a disappointment, Drixler wrote. A numerical system would allow for a grade distribution without the negative implications of the current scale.

According to Miller, the faculty’s discussion of grades touched on a wide range of issues, such as questions about why grades tend to be lower in the fall semester. Professors’ anecdotes suggested that incoming freshmen and the higher enrollment in math and chemistry courses in the fall account for that irregularity, Miller said.

At Thursday’s meeting, faculty also approved the history department’s decision to ease its major’s distribution requirements. History majors from the Class of 2015 and below will now be required to enroll in two instead of three courses in the history of Latin America, Asia or Africa, Director of Undergraduate Studies Beverly Gage said. According to Gage, the department also voted to drop the requirements that students divide their mandatory preindustrial courses and departmental seminars along different geographical regions.

Gage said the changes came in response to students who said they were finding the distributional requirements hard to fulfill. Though she admitted the changes were “relatively minor,” Gage said she thinks they are “very important in allowing students to have flexibility and allow students to concentrate within their areas of interest.”

History major Erica Tavera ’15 characterized the change as a “catch-22,” adding that though she appreciates having more room to focus on her interests, the decision might aggravate students who already think that the department does not focus sufficiently on non-Western history. Tavera noted that many students had been offended by the label “Rest of the World” to describe courses in Latin American, Asian and African history. In response to those protests, the department changed the label this year.

“Now that [the Latin American, Asian and African history requirement is] equal with the requirement for European courses, I don’t know how people who were offended would feel about this change,” Tavera said.

The next faculty meeting will take place on Dec. 5.

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