Wellesley economics professors examine effects of grading policy

Humanities, most social sciences grades fell by a sixth of a letter grade after implementation of grade deflation” policy

By SARA RATHOD ’15

Staff Writer

By Sammy Marrus '16, Assistant Photography Editor

By Sammy Marrus ’16, Assistant Photography Editor

Three professors from the economics department will soon publish a joint paper examining the effect of the Wellesley grading policy on student GPAs, the number of students who receive Latin honors, professors’ SEQ ratings and post-graduate outcomes. As GPAs across the country continue to soar and institutions grapple with how best to rein in grade inflation, the new study may offer some insights into what type of grading policy best combats excessive GPA growth without detrimentally effecting students’ job prospects and overall well-being.

For their research, Professors Kristin Butcher, Akila Weerapana and Patrick McEwan examined academic transcripts as well as data related to alumnae donations and admission to graduate and professional schools from 1998 to 2008.

The study shows that after the grading policy was implemented in 2004, grades awarded in the humanities departments—which include English, philosophy and language studies—and non-economics social sciences classes—like history, sociology and political science—dropped on average by a sixth of a letter grade, or half of a “plus” or “minus.”

Conversely, grades in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) and economics, which were historically lower by comparison, did not change noticeably. Prior to the policy’s institution, students majoring in the humanities and social sciences were more likely to graduate with Latin honors than students from other types of departments. Today, grades across all disciplines look roughly the same, although STEM and economics grades remain slightly lower on average.

Although the current policy has decreased grades in humanities and most social science courses, both Butcher and Dean of Academic Affairs Richard French see the convergence of grades across disciplines as a good thing.

According to French, when grades are lower in STEM fields, students may feel that they are not performing well in science and math. Some may also feel pressure to choose courses in other departments based on their anticipated GPA.

“I think this [policy] levels the playing field a lot more for students on campus,” he said.

The study shows that the grading policy may also level the playing field for professors across different disciplines. Before 2004, professors in the humanities and non-economics social science departments, where grades were higher, tended to receive higher SEQ ratings than their colleagues in sciences, math and economics. However, since then, evaluations of humanities and social science professors have lowered, reducing the disparity seen in previous years.

The decrease in average grades in the humanities and most social science departments is mainly due to the increased prevalence of B-range grades given out in cases where departments previously awarded a high number of A’s and A-’s. The use of C-’s and below has not changed significantly.

In 2000, before the grading policy was put in place, nearly three-quarters of the senior class at Wellesley graduated with Latin honors. By 2002, the average GPA at Wellesley was one of the highest among all of its peer institutions, and grade inflation began to undermine Wellesley’s reputation as an academically rigorous institution.

Elizabeth Mandeville, director of fellowship programs at Wellesley, says many awards programs have welcomed the use of deflationary policies at schools.

“[The] Rhodes [Scholarship] is probably the most competitive fellowship out there, and they are increasingly skeptical when they see students’ resumes and transcripts with these very high GPAs,” she said.

Earlier this year, the Rhodes Trust released a statement praising institutions that have attempted to curb grade inflation.

Rapid grade inflation, which has been occurring throughout the country, has been a source of general concern at other institutions besides Wellesley. Both Princeton and Boston University (BU) have capped the percentage of A’s that professors may award students. By contrast, Harvard University, where the median grade is an A- and the most frequently awarded mark is an A, has allowed grade inflation to continue.

Unlike Princeton and BU, Wellesley does not require professors to grade on a curve nor does it set a quota on the number of A’s a professor may give out.

Wellesley’s official grading standards state that the average grade in 100- and 200-level courses with 10 or more students should be no higher than a B+. If an instructor wishes to award a class a higher average, he or she may make an exception after submitting an explanation to French, who is also chair of the Committee on Curriculum and Academic Policy.

Administrators at Wellesley continuously reach out to graduate and professional school admission offices to inform them about the grading policy. Additionally, a cover letter from the Provost explaining the grading policy accompanies all academic transcripts produced by the College.

Many graduate and professional schools take note of varying grading policies at undergraduate schools when evaluating a candidate. Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Tufts School of Medicine and BU School of Law are among the institutions that account for academic rigor during the application process, according to admission representatives from each university.

“If a school is known to have grade deflation, the Committee will factor this into their decision, just as they will factor in grade inflation as well,” said a spokesperson for the Office of Admissions for the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

However, according to Dr. Judd Hollander, founding faculty advisor at Your PreMed Advisory Team, students at schools with tough grading policies may still be at a disadvantage when applying for graduate and professional schools that narrow their application piles through a first-round cut based on GPAs and standardized test scores.

“As much as medical schools would like to say that they take a holistic approach and look at the complete applicant…if you’re a typical med-school that gets maybe 10,000 applications for 100 or 200 spots, there’s not enough time in the world to read every application,” he said. “I think these students from a school that has a more stringent grading policy could get hurt on that first round of cuts.”

Hollander emphasized that once an admissions team is past the first round of cuts, the readers are free to take a deeper look at each application. However, not all graduate and professional schools use GPA cut-offs. Johns Hopkins, Tufts School of Medicine and BU Law all confirmed that they do not make cuts solely based on GPAs and standardized test scores.

The research at Wellesley provides some limited information about the effect of the grading policy on post-graduate outcomes. Researchers examined the likelihood of students being admitted to medical school, but did not collect data relating to other types of graduate and professional schools.

The results show the probability of being admitted to medical school for students majoring in the humanities and non-economics social sciences declined slightly compared to the years before the current grading policy. This dip is partly due to the fact that fewer students from those departments are actually applying. When the researchers controlled for students’ SAT scores, there was no change in the probability that students were admitted.

“What I think this means is that [before the current grading policy] there was somebody who was mistakenly applying because they had very high grades,” Butcher said.

Put differently, if SAT scores are used as an indicator of student ability, then the results suggest that there has been no change in the probability that a high-ability student majoring in humanities or social sciences will be admitted to medical school.

The chances that students majoring in STEM fields and economics are admitted into medical school does not seem to have changed.

Because the effects of different grading policies are still very much up for debate, institutions of higher education have yet to reach a consensus on the best ways to control GPA growth. While Yale is considering strengthening its efforts to reduce grade inflation, Princeton has convened an ad-hoc committee to reassess its notoriously strict policy of capping A-range grades at 35 percent per course.

Wellesley’s new grading policy research, which is awaiting publication, may help colleges and universities like Princeton assess the impact their grading practices have on students. Once the study is released, the results are likely to be posted on the Wellesley website where anyone can access them.

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