From as early as kindergarten, students are told that their academic efforts rank somewhere between an A and an F in any given subject. But as new technology in higher education has changed how teaching and learning happen, and as many educators place a heavier emphasis on learning outcomes over GPAs, professors like Trudy A. Milburn wonder why institutions still rely so heavily on the traditional grading system.
Ms. Milburn, an adjunct associate professor in communication studies at the City University of New York’s Baruch College, says she’s much more concerned with what students have learned than with letters. And, to some extent, she feels that grades have become so inflated at many colleges that they have lost their meaning. With more institutions relying on adjunct instruction, she can’t help but wonder whether grade inflation might become even more pronounced since instructors are judged partly on student evaluations.
"No one ever questions it," she says of the grading system. "You can’t get into college if you don’t have a certain GPA from high school, and you can’t get into grad school if you don’t have a certain GPA from college."
To her, it would be better for instructors to simply require students to demonstrate a certain level of mastery to pass a course, rather than to do the extra work of assigning grades to the skills students have learned.
Over the last 16 years, Ms. Milburn has worked as a professor at Baruch and at California State University-Channel Islands, and has also held the position of director of campus solutions at Taskstream, a company that helps institutions with the outcomes assessments they provide to accreditors. In her experience at those different institutions, she has often wondered: If grades aren’t a good indicator of student learning, why do we keep using them?
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