Prohibition at VCU: A plus or a minus?

Robert Showah

Opinion Editor

VCU is the only major four-year institution in Virginia that prohibits plus-minus grading in its classrooms, and a lot of people would like that changed, faculty and students alike.

This is not the easiest issue to navigate, largely because the questions raised are not just about students’ concerns that adding pluses and minuses will affect their GPA and potential postgraduate-admission hopes, but it also questions the philosophy professors teach by and whether they place emphasis on improvement, performance or accuracy.

A question that arises, then, is if there are two legitimate points of view on either side, why not let the professors decide which grading scale they believe is best?

Virginia Tech, Virginia, William & Mary, James Madison and George Mason all leave the choice of grading scale to the discretion of the professors.

According to a professor I spoke with in the School of Humanities and Sciences who requested to remain anonymous, VCU has not transferred to the system because folks down at the VCU Medical Campus have a problem with it.

Those students who support the status quo believe that a plus-minus system would have a detrimental effect on their GPA, and professors who agree argue that one letter is sufficient in evaluating a student’s performance in a class, that a “B” is a “B.” Straightforward, no crazy symbols.

Students in support of a plus-minus system have concluded that it is fairer and more accurate. Many students placed their own experiences at the center of their rationale. Students for change said they’ve had experiences with the current system where the professor either refused to round-up their borderline final grade or corrections have been made after a class has ended for the semester, yet the extra points rewarded made no difference because they remained within the margin of the same letter grade.

The anonymous professor supports switching to plus-minus grading, primarily because it is fairer and breaking grades into “B-,“ “B” and “B+” can better allow them to distinguish between good students and better students.

As much as professors for plus-minus grading like to distinguish between an 85 and an 88, however, it is hard to believe any admissions office would allow such a negligible margin to impact a student’s chances at admittance to a graduate school. Then again, the red line at which we reject or accept students must be drawn somewhere.

The deeper problem of both grading scales is that they are an attempt to conclude a student’s performance with a letter or digit. Maybe it is laziness or our obsessive culture to endlessly compare GPAs, rankings, C-pluses and B-minuses.

If given the choice to remain with the status quo or transfer to a plus-minus system, I would choose the latter, and not necessarily because it is a better policy, but rather the lesser of two evils.

Viewing this strictly from the unfortunate hyper-competitive culture we’ve created over grades as labels, grading with pluses and minuses would help raise our standards as a university, which we desperately need to do in order to compete for more academically diverse students. It would potentially motivate students to work harder to raise their grades to pluses rather than settling with one indistinct letter grade. It would also give professors options as to how they would like to evaluate students. After all, a simplified and fixed grading scale like the current system is not compatible with classes that have different curricula.

Or we can go with a better idea. We can do what Brown University, one of the eight Ivy League schools, does.

We can come to grips with the fact that no grading mechanism based on numbers, letters or rankings can measure the true capability of a student and the qualities they need to succeed academically and in their careers. Qualities like analysis, independence, creativity, communication, and leadership skills. Qualities not reflected in GPAs.

Since 1975, Brown gives their students options as to how they would prefer to be evaluated and places emphasis on letters of recommendation and written evaluations. Brown has also eliminated rankings and Dean’s list placements in order to focus better on the correct values that should motivate students to perform their best: curiosity, taking advantage of opportunities, solving problems and generally enjoying the learning process.

Of course, Brown has an undergraduate population of about 6,000, nearly one-fifth the size of VCU. Unfortunately, with 32,000 students, VCU must resort to a more manufactured, mass-produced form of grading that lends itself to more inaccuracy and a misconstrued notion that courses without plus-minus are “easier,” thus attracting less-than-studious applicants.

Changing or permitting professors to choose what grading scale they prefer would be a step in the right direction. Whether the powers that be come to their senses and bring plus-minus grading to VCU encounters much the same wonder as the mythical VCU football team.

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