Ultra Vires


Letters to the Editor: Prof Phillips on Grading Scheme

Dear Editor:

Aaron Rankin and Justin Nasseri raise substantial procedural concerns about the law school administration’s proposal to change to a new grading scheme (Faculty Scores “LP” in Consultation, Ultra Vires, January 25th issue).  While they make a very good case, it is equally important to note that procedural concerns cannot be separated from substantive ones. It is crucial that student opinion be sought, and that that opinion be fully informed. To this point two crucial issues are missing from the debate and from any consultations that have taken place.

First, as the Rankin/Nasseri article indicates, we do not know what distribution rules will accompany any change to new letter grades. Distribution rules are necessary because a grading system without them would likely result in considerable unfairness to students, as grading profiles will look different from course to course. This is a particularly acute problem in first year, when students are placed in sections with no course selection, but it will also be harmful throughout the programme. Here it is worth noting that our current grading rules were brought into being in the 1980s at the request of the students, to deal with exactly this problem.

Consistent grading profiles across courses are highly desirable in any system, but also difficult to achieve at the University because section II.5 of the University Grading Practices Policy states that “The distribution of grades in any course shall not be predetermined by any system of quotas that specifies the number or percentage of grades allowable at any grade level.” There is a qualifier to this, in the further statement that “a division may provide broad limits to instructors setting out a reasonable distribution of grades in the division or department.” Before any new grading system can be implemented we need to know what limits are proposed, and whether they conform to the “broad” limits noted above. To take an unlikely example, a rule that stated that between 10% and 50% of a class could get an A would surely be within the definition of “broad” limit but it would hardly prevent the unfairness problem already mentioned. Conversely, a rule that stated that between 10% and 15% of students in a course should receive an A would ensure very substantial equity between courses, but is unlikely to pass the “broad” limits test.

Second, it is difficult for students to assess whether a new scheme is desirable without a clear understanding of what the current system is and how it works. By specifying an average mark for all courses the current system does provide considerable equity. It is not perfect, and could be improved, and will certainly need to be made more transparent. But it is far from clear to many faculty members that the proposed new system is preferable or necessary.  And, more importantly, any student consultation, to be made meaningful, needs to include consideration of whether the current system, amended, would be preferable to a change.

At the end of the day the proposal to change to a new grading system ought to be one that is fully debated by Faculty Council.


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