May 26, 2011

Faculty Senate votes to end posting of median grades

It just got harder to shop around for good grades at Cornell.

The Faculty Senate voted May 11 to stop posting course median grades on a university website. The resolution, aimed at ending grade inflation, passed by a margin of about 3-to-1, according Dean of the University Faculty William Fry.

The resolution states that students have been using online information on course median grades -- halfway between the lowest and highest -- to sign up for classes in which higher grades are awarded, contributing to grade inflation at Cornell. The Office of the University Registrar's website has reported median grades since 1998.

Research by two Cornell professors provided the resolution's rationale. Assistant professor of economics Talia Bar, professor of marketing and economics Vrinda Kadiyali and an Israeli colleague of the two showed in a 2009 paper that the availability of "grade information online induced students to select leniently graded courses -- or in other words, to opt out of courses they would have selected absent considerations of grades."

The paper, "Grade Information and Grade Inflation: The Cornell Experiment," was published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. "It seemed like a very thorough evaluation, a very rational approach," said associate professor of nutritional sciences Charles McCormick, who presented the resolution on behalf of the senate's Educational Policy Committee.

The Office of the University Registrar will continue to record median grades offline but make them available only to deans, department chairs and those needing the data for research.

The Faculty Senate has asked Vice President for Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy, who oversees the Office of the University Registrar, to implement the ruling.

The May 11 resolution reverses part of the senate's 1996 decision to post course median grades online and to include them on students' transcripts. The stated rationale at that time was that students, faculty and others trying to evaluate transcripts would benefit from information enabling them to interpret course grades. And the presence of median grades on transcripts, the senate reasoned, might encourage students to take courses with relatively low median grades. Median grades appeared online immediately after the 1996 resolution, but technological obstacles precluded their appearance on transcripts until fall 2008.

In May 2009, the senate tabled a resolution essentially identical to the one it passed May 11. "Since median grades had just begun appearing on transcripts, some senators felt that we hadn't had time to see how the intent of the 1996 resolution would play out -- that is, perhaps now that median grades were also on transcripts, students wouldn't be so quick to choose courses with high medians," said associate professor of electrical engineering David Delchamps.

But in fact, McCormick said, the policy has "had the opposite effect."

The senate's Educational Policy Committee is likely to revisit inclusion of course median grades on students' transcripts in the fall, McCormick said.