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Grading Patterns at Rhode Island College
By Lisa Church
Assistant Professor of Accounting
During the course of the 2000-2001 academic year, Council of Rhode Island College discussed the matter of grade inflation at Rhode Island College as there was much written in the professional literature about this topic. An ad-hoc committee on grade inflation was established by Council of Rhode Island College in the spring of 2001. The committee on grade inflation (“the committee”) met from the spring 2001 through the fall of 2002 with committee members representing academic departments, administrative offices, and the student body of Rhode Island College.
The last time this issue had been thoroughly examined was in a June 1989 report by the Office of Institutional Research and Planning, which stressed the importance of understanding the causes for changes in average grades over time. According to the June 1989 report, Rhode Island College first began collecting grading information in the early 1970s due to a concern at the time that grade inflation might be occurring. The Office of Institutional Research and Planning issued an updated version of the Grading Patterns and Longitudinal Trends Report through fall of 2001 to aid the committee in its charge from Council. The report provides a historical perspective of grading patterns at Rhode Island College since 1973, when undergraduate and graduate grading information was first collected.
The committee reviewed the report and met with the members of the Office of Institutional Research and Planning to discuss the historical changes at Rhode Island College over the 30 year period which had an impact on grading patterns, including the following items:
- Undergraduate and graduate courses were renumbered in the fall of 1999 resulting in undergraduate courses of 100-400 and graduate courses of 500-600. Thus average grades for years 2000 and 2001 simply could not be compared analytically to previous years and caused problems in the trend analysis. As the course level has an impact on average grades for the course, simply changing the course level in and of itself results in a change in the grading patterns.
- Various curricular changes occurred at Rhode Island College over time within individual schools and departments. Schools and departments that were once part of a different program have been rearranged throughout the years, making it difficult to track grading trends as grades are reported by offering department. The General Education program that was implemented in 1981 is another example of a change that would have a significant impact on grading patterns and trends as the non-majors enrolled in a course typically do not score as well in the course as do course majors. Thus those courses with many non-majors would have lower average scores, and changing the General Education requirements would cause fluctuations in major and non-major enrollments. This change in the early 1980s would serve to depress grades somewhat from prior year reports. Plus and minus grades were permitted at Rhode Island College in the fall of 1980, and this change was likewise expected to depress grades. Other curricular matters, which would influence grading patterns, include whether or not the course was a required or an elective course, and the mode of instruction for the course. Most significantly influencing grading patterns was the policy of instituting grade point average requirements and other admission criteria for enrollment in certain academic programs, which would serve to increase grades as only those students with an acceptable level of academic performance would be allowed into the program courses.
- Grading policies changed throughout the 30-year period, also altering grading patterns. The incomplete grade policy changed in 1994 such that a letter grade of A- through D- could be assigned in conjunction with an I grade, and students not completing the course work then received a final grade of A- through F. Grade changes by an instructor and the timing of gathering the semester data would influence the reporting of grading patterns. Likewise conversion to the Peoplesoft system would have altered the timing and collection of grades, which in itself would distort grading patterns and trends. Additionally in the spring of 2000, students were given an extension to drop courses and instructors were given discretion to assign a grade of W as a final grade. This policy change officially became effective in the spring of 2002 and would have served to increase grades somewhat.
- The awarding of Presidential Scholarships to incoming freshman in the fall 2000 semester by the Undergraduate Admissions Office would be expected to increase grades.
In determining the extent to which grade inflation exists at Rhode Island College, the committee reviewed and analyzed the reports and entertained discussions among the committee members. Due to the influence of the above factors on individual departments, the committee reviewed average grades of undergraduates taking undergraduate courses, which remained in the B- range from 1973 to 2001; the committee determined that this was not a meaningful increase in grades at Rhode Island College and therefore that grade inflation was not an issue at Rhode Island College. The committee was cognizant that there would be interest among the departments to compare the average grades assigned by their own department to that of another department. Such comparisons are very much complicated by the various factors that were enumerated above. Additionally the reports indicated, and the committee wholeheartedly agreed, that average grades do not provide information on the quality of instruction offered by a department.
The committee recommended that the reports of the Office of Institutional Research and Planning, which included Tables of Average Grades by department and by subject, should be provided to individual departments, along with the accompanying report, for the purpose of reviewing curricular and making instructional decisions.
The committee recommended that individual departments should also receive grade distribution reports, which contain information on grades by course, section, instructor, and division. The committee recommended that the grade distribution reports be circulated at least annually to Department Chairs and Deans for their respective departments, and that the entire report be circulated to the Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs, the Vice President for Academic Affairs, and the President for review.
The committee also recommended that the Grading Patterns and Longitudinal Trends Report be updated periodically, but at a minimum every five years, with a distribution to Department Chairs, Deans, the Vice President of Academic Affairs, and to Council at Rhode Island College.
Council unanimously accepted the committee’s recommendations in the fall of 2002. It is the hope of the committee that the distribution of the report, Table of Average Grades and grade distribution reports should facilitate a meaningful intradepartmental analysis at Rhode Island College.