Assessing the A’s: Professors and administrators disagree about how traditional grades should fall



Daniel Moore

Julia Davis loathes academia. The junior criminology and justice studies major would rather be out playing shows in local coffee shops and bars.

But when the time finally came for her to take Thomas Yantek’s sophomore course in Public Policy, she and some of her friends banded together to “sink or swim” in what she had heard was a notoriously difficult course.

“They ended up hating it, but I had a great time,” she said. “It was the first time that I felt really challenged.”

A transfer student from Tulane University — a “Southern Ivy League” school in Louisiana — Davis said she wishes schoolwork at Kent State asked more of her.

“I get A’s and B’s, and I don’t do a whole lot — and that pisses me off,” Davis said. “I’m not really working as hard as I should to get the grades that I get.”

According to an analysis of grade data in undergraduate courses from Spring 2008 to Spring 2013, more than seven in 10 letter grades given by Kent State professors have been an A or B — the two grades defined as above “average performance” by the school’s course catalog. About 40 percent of letter grades given were A’s, which designate “excellent scholarship” for undergraduate students.

Meanwhile, the letter grades that indicate “fair or average,” “poor” and failing performances appeared much less frequently. About 16 percent of grades given were C’s, and 11 percent of grades were D’s and F’s.

A decades-old trend toward higher grades for students in the classroom has some Kent State professors and administrators worried that grades are inflated. They hold different philosophies about how to link a student’s performance with a grade and whether classes should generally follow a statistical bell curve — meaning that half of students should always grade below average.

To help provide more direct evidence that students are meeting learning outcomes, administrators at Kent State and other schools across the country are drawing up separate assessments that track a student’s progress in a variety of measures.

A ‘normal’ grading curve

Melody Tankersley, associate provost for academic affairs, considers college students to be at the highest end of the general learning spectrum, and, therefore, she does not expect grades to be evenly distributed.

“I’m not convinced that there’s a lot of grade inflation,” Tankersley said. “I’m not convinced you couldn’t have a class of 30 people and all of them exceed in learning. Now is that grade inflation or were you just an awesome teacher?

“If this is what you want students to know and to be able to do, and 90 percent of them do it, why wouldn’t they get an A?”

Thom Yantek, an associate professor in the political science department, called the grading scale “grossly inflated.” Professors should consider C as average because grades, he said, are the primary indicators of student success to any school’s main constituents: employers and taxpayers.

“I don’t know how you can possibly justify giving all A’s,” Yantek said. “It hurts the good students. Because the real A students, you can’t tell them from all the other fake A students. Because grades don’t mean anything anymore.”

More than 40 percent of the letter grades Yantek has given students since 2008 have been D’s and F’s.

Meanwhile, chemistry and biochemistry professor Anatoly Khitrin said the skewed distribution of grades at Kent State should be normal.

“I don’t see any problems here — I generally think that good grades, they encourage better study than lower grades,” Khitrin said. “If I can have students with good grades, I will try to do that.”

In 14 chemistry courses since 2008, Khitrin has given an A or B to nearly nine of 10 students. Just 3 percent of his grades were under a C. He pointed to the motivation of his students — many of them preparing for medical school coursework — as the primary reason for high grades.

But Khitrin stressed grades, even in an area of study that emphasizes the right answers over the wrong, should encourage students to try harder.

His students know exactly what to expect from tests, and he gives them several attempts at homework assignments. If a student is failing, he said, “take more problems for practice, solve them. If you cannot solve them, come to me and discuss it. Then try again.”

“I don’t think that people getting C’s are motivated,” he added.

Lots of A’s: Grade inflation or tougher standards?

In an analysis of undergraduate courses since 2008, the Stater found grades vary widely among academic departments.

Catherine Hackney, associate dean of the College of Education, Health and Human Services, said some schools employ strict GPA requirements and other qualifications for their students to take upper division courses. In this way, high numbers of A’s and B’s may actually reflect tougher academic standards.

“Some program areas may have admission requirements more rigorous than the university minimum,” Hackney said. “If so, they are more selective and consequently may have a higher rate of achievement among their students.”

Education students in Teaching, Learning and Curriculum Studies — which gives out 93 percent above-average grades — “are good students coming in,” said Joanne Arhar, the department’s associate dean, in an email. According to her, sophomores and juniors admitted this year to Advanced Study — the program’s professional teaching segment — had an average GPA of 3.4.

Grades are largely based on the student’s lesson plans, which Arhar said must be revised to the department’s satisfaction before they’re taught in schools.

“The grade reflects the improvements that were made,” she said, adding that students leave the advanced coursework every year because “they realize that the demands of teaching are not for them.”

Different outcomes

Enter outcomes assessments, a relatively new way to measuring student learning beyond a traditional course grade.

In the past 15 years, Kent State and schools across the country have faced pressure from regional accrediting boards to provide more accountability that students are meeting certain academic standards, said Catherine Hackney, associate dean in the College of Education, Health and Human Services.

“I think we’re moving toward those kinds of assessments because everything is based on evidence now,” Hackney said. “You’ve got evidence for why you got an A.”

Natasha Jankowski, assistant director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment based at the University of Illinois, emphasized that outcomes assessments and traditional grades can evaluate students differently.

Where a student’s traditional grade might be affected by class participation, turning in homework assignments on time or the organization and structure of a paper, outcomes assessments at a broad level measure how a student improves over time. An A paper, she said, could receive a 2 out of 4 on a rubric measuring.

“These elements which you are (traditionally) graded on might not count in any meaningful way or connect directly with outcomes assessment,” Jankowski said.

At Kent State, Hackney said, the assessments are being developed at academic program level, which allows rubrics for traditional grading and outcomes assessments to align more closely.

Though she doesn’t agree higher grades necessarily indicate inflation among the majority of “A” students, Hackney said student learning outcomes can provide more authentic and honest assessment of a student’s progress.

“You’re focused on the outcome — and some people need a little more help or a little bit more time or a little bit more prodding to get to that outcome,” Hackney said. “But isn’t that our goal? If it is our goal, then the rest of it doesn’t matter.”

Voting with their feet

Tankersley said the school is collecting and analyzing outcomes assessments as part of Provost Todd Diacon’s broader strategic plan to start gathering data “down in the weeds.”

“Right now, we have some classes that have higher D’s, F’s or students withdraw from the class,” Tankersley said. “So we want to know what’s going on with that.”

According to the data, freshman courses tend to have much lower grades than upper-division courses. Fifteen percent of freshman grades are D’s or F’s, as opposed to 4 percent in senior-level courses.

Yantek said many of the students who begin his class “vote with their feet” rather than accept a low grade. Almost 28 percent of the students who have enrolled in his classes withdrew before a letter grade could be issued — nearly four times the school’s average withdrawal rate.

“Some of them will just say: ‘I can’t afford to take a hit on my GPA. I know I can get a higher grade someplace else,’ ” Yantek said. “And I tell them: ‘I know you can. So go. I can’t hold you.’ ”

In all major departments in which withdrawal rates are higher than the school’s average, the number of D’s and F’s is also above average.

Math, which gives the highest percentage of D’s and F’s at 25 percent, watches 10 percent of students withdraw. The Teaching, Learning and Curriculum Studies, which gives just 3 percent D’s and F’s, has half the withdrawal rate of the math department.

Tankersley worries about professors who approach a class with only the normal grading curve in mind. She noted Kent State welcomed a freshman class this fall with the highest-ever high school GPA on average.

“I do want faculty to be challenging and set high expectations, but sometimes, you’re going to get a class of really high achievers,” she said. “We’ve got an elite group of students here. Anybody can force that normal distribution of course grades. But I don’t know that that’s the answer.”

Davis, the political science student, acknowledged Yantek can be a little “extreme.” Davis said he might receive more support from other faculty members and the administration if students spoke up.

“They aren’t going to come up and be like, ‘I’m glad I got a C. I’m glad I got a D. I learned something,’ ” she said. “I almost never hear that.”

She said she plans to take Yantek’s senior-level, writing-intensive course next year because she knows she’ll “become a better writer when I come out of it.”

“I really do feel like I learned more in his class than I did in any other class,” she said.

Contact Daniel Moore at [email protected].