Last Slope Day, I was approached by a junior named Jack who was surprisingly unhappy considering that he was skipping class and drinking on the Slope. Instead of complaining about the performer or the long beer lines, however, Jack explained that he had recently learned that the Office of the University Registrar was planning on publishing median grades on his transcript in the near future.
Jack was right. Beginning in the spring of 2008, the Registrar intends to begin printing median grades and class sizes on official transcripts.
In 1996, the Faculty Senate approved two new grade reporting policies, jointly referred to as “Truth in Grading” by the plan’s proponents. The Faculty Senate determined in a 44 to 36 vote that Cornell should “provide more information to the reader of a transcript and produce more meaningful letter grades.” In an effort to achieve that goal, the Senate ruled that (1) the Office of the University Registrar would publish median grades and enrollments for undergraduate courses in a median grade report, and (2) transcripts would record the median grade and course enrollment, as well as a student’s grade, for all courses with at least 10 students.
The plan provoked controversy on campus. Proponents claimed that these policies would present students, graduate school admissions officers and potential employers with a more accurate measure of undergraduate performance. Additionally, they hypothesized that publishing median grades on transcripts might encourage students to enroll in courses with relatively low median grades; for example, a student who excels in a class with a low median grade will illustrate stronger academic performance than a student who excels in a class with a high median grade.
Opponents claimed that the policies would increase academic pressures by creating even more competition for grades. Despite strong opposition, the policies were adopted after the Faculty Senate debated the issue in three successive meetings.
The publishing of median grades and enrollments became effective immediately, explaining why students have been able to access median grade reports online for the past 10 years. However, the Registrar’s Office could not incorporate median grades and enrollments on transcripts until implementing a new student record system, a process the Office expects to complete this spring.
When Jack approached me on Slope Day, his argument first seemed like a predictable complaint from an undergraduate who boosts his GPA by enrolling in easier courses with comparatively high median grades. A study titled “Information, Course Selection and Grade Inflation” by Prof. Talia Bar, economics, Prof. Vrinda Kadiyali, marketing and economics and Prof. Asaf Zussman, economics, reports that a majority of students use median grade reports when choosing their courses. Additionally, their study explains that the website containing the reports experiences the greatest number of hits during pre-registration and add/drop periods, illustrating an association between median grades and course selection.
However, Jack asserted that he should not be penalized for his course decisions during his first three years at Cornell when median grades were not published on transcripts. He had no knowledge of the resolution that the Faculty Senate approved in 1996, largely due to the lack of publicity regarding the pending changes. Additionally, because Cornell transcripts have never included median grades, it is unlikely that Jack would have even considered the possibility that median grades would be published on his transcript without explicit information informing him otherwise.
The compelling argument is not that this policy is unreasonable but that applying this policy retroactively is wrong. If current students are not exempt from this change, they will have selected their courses without complete information. Because the policy was not well-publicized and lacked an implementation date, students will have chosen their courses without the opportunity to consider the impact of such a change. Therefore, any change to grade reporting policies should be widely communicated to the student body prior to its implementation to ensure that students are fully informed about them, especially when such a change will affect a crucial measure of a student’s academic performance.
Luckily, the members of the Faculty Senate in 1996 considered this issue when they created the new policies. Their resolution states that while median grades would be released on transcripts as soon as technically possible, the policy “will apply only to classes entering after the effective date.” According to an explanation of the resolution on the Office of the University Registrar’s webpage, the procedure “will be introduced so that each undergraduate class will have a uniform transcript,” and thus, if the procedure goes into effect in the spring of 2008, it will only affect those students who begin their first year in 2008 or later.
These statements are certainly reassuring, but a separate committee in charge of implementing the changes has not yet confirmed that the new policy will apply only to new students. Last month, the committee intended to print median grades on all students’ transcripts because they were unaware of the clauses in the original resolution that exempt current students from the new policy. I have informed the committee of these clauses, and my hope is that the committee will agree not only with me, but also with the members of the 1996 Faculty Senate. I strongly believe that current students should not be penalized by retroactively applying this policy and that median grades should be published only on the transcripts of students who begin their first year in the fall of 2008.
Who knew Slope Day could be so productive?
Kate Duch is a student-elected trustee. She can be contacted at email@example.com. Trustee Viewpoint appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.