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Visible grade medians unintentionally increased grade inflation and limited academic exploration.

February 19, 2024

Cornell Discontinues Median Grade Visibility on Transcripts 15 Years After Inception

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The decision to include median grades on transcripts was intended to reduce grade inflation. But the practice became a “bingo, bullseye, backfire,” with its impact on grading standards, according to Prof. Rebecca Nelson, plant science, at a Dec. 6 Faculty Senate meeting.

On Dec. 15, the Faculty Senate approved Resolution 193 to eliminate median grade visibility. The resolution cited published research that indicates access to grade medians perpetuates grade inflation and students’ assertion that the practice is demoralizing and inequitable through Sun columns and a Student Assembly resolution

Students consequently will not see median grades included on transcripts for courses taken in the Fall 2023 semester and beyond, but median grades will not be retroactively eliminated from transcripts of prior semesters.

Cornell stood as an outlier with its recording of median grades on transcripts. The University was one of just four universities to include median grades out of 71 member institutions of the Association of American Universities.

Cornell began publishing median grades on the Office of the University Registrar website in 1998, and on transcripts since 2008. The 1997 Faculty Senate resolution that urged the inclusion of median grades on transcripts and the registrar’s website argued that “more accurate recognition of performance may encourage students to take courses in which the median grade is relatively low.”

Research on Cornell’s grade information and grade inflation, however, found that “the provision of grade information online induced students to select leniently graded courses.” Comparing the 1990-1997 period before median grade inclusion to the 1998-2004 post-policy period, the share of courses with A-range medians rose by approximately 16 percent while student enrollment in A-range courses grew by over 42 percent.

The Faculty Senate consequently removed median grades from the registrar’s website in 2011, meaning the median grades of all classes were no longer visible for all students.

The Faculty Senate’s resolution noted that despite the removal, students collectively shared median grade data on platforms like Reddit, despite the removal of median grades from the OUR website. If commercial websites gatekeep data with paywalls, the resolution contended, less affluent students are disadvantaged in the course selection process.

The resolution stated: “Cornell’s practice of including median grades on transcripts disadvantages Cornell students in job and academic applications, demoralizes students, devalues academic accomplishments in the classroom, detracts from learning, reinforces student competition and discourages academic risk-taking.”

But Priyanka Desai ’26, a biomedical engineering major applying to medical school, expressed support for the inclusion of median grades on transcripts. In a written statement to The Sun, Desai explained that many classes required for her major have B- or B median grades and that comparing her grade to the median helps her assess her true standing in courses.

“I think the decision to not report [median grades] is not good for me and my engineering peers, since we face grade [deflation] that makes our GPAs lower than other majors, so without [the] context of how the class was curved it is unfair to not report this statistic,” Desai wrote. “Giving context to my hard engineering courses would give context to my slightly lower GPA [when applying to medical school.]”

Saachi Subramaniam ’26, a sophomore transfer majoring in environment and sustainability, expressed conflicting perspectives on the helpfulness of visible grade medians depending on the classes they represent.

Subramaniam said that visible grade medians could be helpful in the particularly difficult, large classes she takes, like Molecular Biology and Genetics 2800: Lectures in Genetics and Genomics, but less helpful in smaller classes based more on personal growth, like Communication 3050: Advanced Media Writing about Cultural, Social and Environmental Crises.

“I think [including grade medians on transcripts] puts a little bit less onus on the student to do well, regardless of the environment,” Subramaniam said.

The Faculty Senate ultimately adopted the resolution with 74 percent of the vote. But months of senate meetings revealed strong disagreements and concerns among faculty.

Prof. Lisa Nishii, industrial and labor relations, introduced the resolution at the Nov. 8 Faculty Senate meeting.

Prof. Michael Thompson, materials science and engineering, criticized the removal of transcript medians, saying word-of-mouth grade comparison and students’ dismay over academic shortcomings will continue regardless of whether medians are included on transcripts.

Nishii argued that while grade comparison among students is nearly impossible to eliminate, without reporting median grades on transcripts, it is very difficult for students to recreate median grade spreadsheets. 

Thompson also questioned whether grade median visibility impacts opportunities post-graduation.

“I did not hear anything from the constituents that utilize the transcripts to assess and evaluate students,” Thompson said. “What impact or how has it been used by careers and by companies that are interested in evaluating our students and assessing their achievements in the class?”

But considering Cornell’s anomaly status with its median grade reporting, Nishii asserted, it is highly unlikely that employers and graduate school admissions rely on median data.

“It’s more likely that [the practice] disadvantages [students] right now,” Nishii said.

Prof. Courtney Roby, classics, echoed Thompson’s disagreement with the resolution.

“Now that Latin honors have been detached University-wide from honors-level research projects and are awarded only for GPA, students are so strongly incentivized to seek out only the easiest possible courses, and [visible grade medians] seemed to be one of our few remaining ways to encourage students to seek out greater academic challenges,” Roby said.

Nishii asserted that while the push for academic exploration aligns with the original motivation for median grade visibility, the data proves that this exploration did not occur.

During the Dec. 6 Faculty Senate meeting, Nelson, who serves as the chair of the Educational Policy Committee, endorsed the resolution due to research finding the practice does not promote academic exploration.

“It’s very resoundingly clear from what seems to be very serious research that the effort considerably backfired across the board, so we [the Educational Policy Committee] totally endorse the idea of removing median grades from [students’] transcripts,” Nelson said.

Thompson, however, continued to assert that presenting grades on a transcript without the context medians provide will only lead to further obscurity around grades.

“Whether it is an inconvenient truth or not, there is a distribution of abilities in classes, and a grade of a B or a C may not necessarily be poor, but without context, it’s hard to evaluate what that is without that median grade,” Thompson said. “And I think [removing medians from transcripts will] just further encourage grade inflation.”

Anushka Shorewala ’26 contributed reporting.