Pomona Faculty Addresses Distribution of Higher Grades to Students Compared To Peer Institutions
Kulu Maphalala | March 13, 2015, 5:44 p.m.
The issue of grade distribution has come to the forefront of the Pomona College faculty discourse in the last two weeks. Michael Steinberger, associate professor of economics and chair of the curriculum committee, said that the committee is currently looking at grade distribution and trying to find a way to address the perceived increase in Pomona students’ grades.
Pomona consistently had the highest or nearly the highest percentage of A's given per school year among 23 peer institutions, according to Pomona’s 2011 accreditation report. The percentage of A's rose from 32.9 percent in the 1981-1982 school year to 59.7 percent in 2009-2010.
To address the issue, the committee has put forth the idea of requiring professors to provide explanations for why they give high proportions of A’s. The committee presented this proposal during the March 4 faculty meeting.
According to the motion, professors would need to fill out a form providing reasons for any A pluses they give to students. They would also be required to provide an explanation if they give more than 50 percent of students in their class A’s. This information would then be sent to department chairs and the Dean of the College for consideration.
However, the motion was tabled to be discussed during the committee's next meeting in April. According to Steinberger, this was because many faculty were unhappy with the present proposal.
Associate Dean of the College Fernando Lozano sent an email to the faculty March 10 sharing hypotheses on the cause of grade distribution. These include an increase in selectivity of students, development of teaching methods and groups such as the Writing Center and the Quantitative Skills Center and students’ tendency to take more classes in their major’s academic department or division under the current general education system.
“I think we need to tie this discussion to student learning and whether improving grades for our students are reflecting improved learning outcomes,” Lozano said. “So for me, giving it the negative context that we need to do something, it might be misguided because maybe what we have is that we have better students and better teachers that invest a lot in teaching their students, and this is the result of that.”
He added, "before even thinking about any prescription, we need to think about what are the underlying mechanisms in which our student grades are improving."
Associate professor of Chicana/o-Latina/o studies and history department chair Tomás Summers Sandoval wrote in an email to TSL that he would like to look at more data to better understand the cause of grade inflation.
“I think the motion works off of the assumption that grade inflation is singly and overwhelmingly the product of knowing and unknowing bias on the part of the grader,” he wrote. “I don’t think we’ve seen anything that proves that clearly. Because of the way [it] defines the problem, the solution the motion provides is limiting.”
According to Steinberger, the motion is not an attempt to punish anyone. Steinberger said that the committee and the administration at large are committed to working with the faculty and hearing from the student body to ensure no one is being left out of the conversation.
Classics professor Chistopher Chinn said that he is impressed by the work of the Curriculum Committee and its efforts to gather input throughout the process.
“I think that the proposal that was tabled seemed reasonable. It at least made faculty thoughtful about how they’re assigning grades and not simply blindly doing the same practices we’ve been doing,” Chinn said.
Art history professor George Gorse said that he has seen a clear rise in grades in the 35 years he has been teaching at Pomona. However, he said that he hasn’t seen a corresponding rise in the quality of students.
Gorse said that he would also like to see written evaluations being more valued than grades.
According to Gorse, data show that classes in the arts and humanities have generally awarded higher grades.
Gorse and politics professor John Seery noted that junior faculty, or assistant professors without tenure, may feel pressured to give good grades because of student evaluations at the end of the semester. These evaluations are taken into account when reviewing professors for tenure.
Rachel Levin, a biology professor and committee member, said that individuals in the committee were told that some national scholarships and professional schools do not consider Pomona students’ grades because of a high level of grade inflation at the college.
Jennifer Locke, Assistant Director of Fellowships at the Pomona Career Development Office, said that she has not heard of Pomona being singled out in this way by any national scholarships. However, she said that she has heard that the scholarships have been seeing high GPAs in applicants across the nation.
Locke said that Pomona students continue to do well in terms of receiving these scholarships because they are able to stand out in areas besides grades, such as leadership, impact on one’s community, research, and more.
Pomona was ranked second by Forbes’ national college ranking in 2013. The number of national scholarship recipients at a college accounts for 10 percent of Forbes’ evaluation of a college. Pomona’s rank fell to eighth in 2014.
“Grades are associated with a lot of stress for students and many students seem to have incorrect beliefs about what has to happen,” Steinberger said. “You do not need to have a 4.0 to gain all sorts of kinds of scholarships [or] to be wonderfully happy and successful.”
Associated Students of Pomona College held its own discussion on grade inflation during their Feb. 20 meeting. ASPC Commissioner of Clubs Joseph Reynolds PO '15 said that the proposal may make it harder for teachers and students to focus in the classroom, claiming that “using grades as a part of the learning experience and not seeing the learning experience manifest as the grade” is vital to maintaining the integrity of the current education system. Reynolds believes grades are merely a byproduct of the learning experience and fears that administrative action might give further undue importance to grades.
Steinberger said that the administration, faculty and students will need to unite to come to an understanding on the best way to address this problem. The question here is whether the student body would be open to any such changes.
“I think we need to give Pomona students credit,” Tanvi Rajgaria PO ’18 said. “If someone explains to us why this is bad, I think we are capable of understanding why it’s a problem. I think we are sensible enough.”
Diane Lee and Lauren Ison contributed reporting.