September 6, 2011

Median Grades Are Not the Answer

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The University’s decision to cease posting median grades online, while still publishing them on student transcripts, is detrimental to Cornell students and leaves them at a potential disadvantage when seeking employment. In a difficult economy where jobs are scarce, it is especially ill-advised for the University to continue testing median grade policies without a firm grasp of their consequences. The fact that such a change was made without any student consultation is all the more disheartening.

The decision to begin to post median grades online and on transcripts was first made as part of the Faculty Senate’s 1996 “truth in grading” policy, which sought to curb grade inflation on campus. The Senate reasoned that students would be more likely to take difficult classes if they knew that future employers would see those classes’ median grades. They also felt that transcripts containing median grades would provide a more complete picture of a student’s academic performance.

There are two problems with this premise. First, that employers and graduate schools would suddenly begin to measure relative student performance as much as a student’s raw G.P.A., thereby causing students to take harder classes. Second, that listing median grades alone serves as a comprehensive measure of a student’s scholastic performance.

A student’s raw G.P.A. is still the dominant — and sometimes the only — method that employers and graduate schools use to evaluate students’ academic performance. Many employers and post-graduate scholarships set minimum G.P.A. requirements, while graduate schools offer G.P.A. ranges that determine whether applicants are qualified. At times, employers won’t even ask for transcripts, instead soliciting a student’s resume, which usually only contains his or her raw G.P.A.

It is built into the employment and post-graduate world that a better G.P.A. matters, even when that regrettably remains at odds with the notion of learning for learning’s sake. Students understand this. Few students would consistently choose to take the most difficult courses at the expense of their G.P.A.s, even if those classes’ median grades were listed on their transcripts.

The Faculty Senate’s recent decision shows it too has come to terms with this. By taking median grade reports offline, the senate has given up on the notion that students will use these reports to choose more difficult classes. Its refusal, however, to remove median grades from transcripts shows that faculty remain committed to the idea that median grades can provide a more complete picture of a student’s academic performance.

Yet, here again, the policy falls short. Posting raw median grades alone on transcripts poses more potential confusion for would-be employers and graduate schools than potential good. Students who consistently challenge themselves with more difficult courses, but underperform the median should not be classified as below average academically based solely on a raw median grade. Conversely, students interested in majors and classes that offer consistently higher median grades should not be penalized by a transcript that sends a message of indolence and diminishes their academic achievements. Whether low or high, median grades on transcripts open the door to interpretations that can negatively affect Cornell’s students in the job market.

The Faculty Senate owes it to its students to find more innovative approaches that do not have the potential to harm Cornellians post-graduation.