Grades vary widely; 37% are A’s

Mark Newton and Ameesha Felton

Contributing Writers

VCU freshman and art foundation student Wade Angeli says he lucked out last semester. He and a friend enrolled in the same history course – but with different professors.

“We compared, and she has all the assignments – and I only have a midterm and a final. I think her teacher is asking for a lot more, so I got the easier one,” Angeli said.

Those faculty members may have vastly different grading standards as well: wide disparities in the distribution of letter grades exist among academic departments, among courses and even among professors who teach the same course, according to an analysis of VCU data.

Consider, for example, PSYC 101. The Psychology Department taught its introductory course 11 times during the 2009-10 academic year, with an average of 270 students per section. One professor gave A’s to almost two-thirds of the students in his two sections, with an average GPA of 3.3. Two other professors gave A’s to only about 10 percent of their students, and the average GPA in one section was below 2.0.

Besides grade distribution differences, the analysis of the data, obtained under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, highlighted another trend: VCU instructors are awarding more A’s now than they used to.

A’s made up 37 percent of the 180,000 letter grades issued in the 5,500 undergraduate courses taught at VCU last year. The grade-point average for all those grades was 2.9: a solid B.

In contrast, a decade ago, fewer than 34 percent of the grades given at VCU each semester were A’s, and the GPA for all those grades was 2.7: a B minus.

Differences in Grading Patterns

Some of the variations in grade distribution are easy to explain. Honors courses, for instance, are taken by students recognized as VCU’s best and brightest; you wouldn’t expect their grades to follow a bell curve. It’s no surprise that 87 percent of the grades given in Honors courses taught since Fall 2006 were A’s.

Other factors may be at work, too: Some disciplines may lend themselves to more rigorous or more objective grading. Also, courses offered at certain times of day may draw more motivated students.

But in other cases, grades may vary widely because of the difficulty of some professors compared to others.

For instance, in Fall 2007 VCU began offering a new course for incoming freshmen – UNIV 111, or Focused Inquiry I. Since then, 451 sections of UNIV 111 have been taught, mostly in the fall, by 65 different instructors. Of the 8,900 grades issued, 34 percent have been A’s.

Seven of the UNIV 111 instructors have given A’s to at least 60 percent of their students, and 10 others have awarded A’s to fewer than 15 percent of their students.

According to the analysis of grades data for the past four years:

* In Biology 101, two professors have given about half of their students A’s; three others have given fewer than 15 percent of their students A’s.

* In Math 131, seven instructors have given at least half of their students A’s; four others have given fewer than 10 percent of their students A’s.

* In Chemistry 101, two professors gave more than 60 percent of their students A’s; three others have given just 15 percent of their students A’s.

Various reasons may account for the differences in grading, said Dan Ream, an associate professor and director of outreach and distance education at VCU Libraries. He said the data don’t mean students are being treated unfairly.

“If grades were purely based on achievements or outcomes that can be measured in an exact way, then that would be true, there would be an unfairness there,” said Ream, the immediate past president of the VCUFaculty Senate.

“But there are several factors: for example, judgment. A professor with more rigorous judgment may be harder on you as a writer, and that may affect your grade.”

Moreover, Ream said, professors who have high grading standards often are excellent teachers.

“I think grades are not just this whole measure of a professor’s quality,” he said. “Sometimes a professor can be really hard and grade very difficultly and still be fantastic.”

However, many students say the grading disparities can put them at a disadvantage: Your grade could depend more on who your teacher is than on how much work you did or how much you learned.

Students are unlikely to complain about easy graders who award a large amount of A’s. Since Fall 2006, about 1,500 VCU instructors have awarded at least 100 grades in undergraduate courses. About 100 of those professors gave A’s to at least 80 percent of their students.

Students may be more concerned about hard graders who rarely award A’s. Of the professors who have issued at least 100 grades over the past four years, about 30 have given A’s to fewer than 10 percent of their students. For 34 faculty members, the average GPA of all the grades they’ve awarded is below 2.0.

More Than One-Third of All Grades Are A’s

Though reasons may vary for grade distribution disparities, one trend is clear: Grades as a whole have been on the rise at VCU.

Of the 108,000 letter grades awarded in undergraduate courses during the 1999-2000 school year, 33.6 percent were A’s. A decade later, during the 2009-10 school year, the proportion of A’s had crept up to 37 percent.

About the Data for this Report

The data used in this story were acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request sent to VCU in November. The university provided grade distribution data for 30,607 courses taught between Fall 2006 and Spring 2010.

The reporters filtered out graduate courses and pass-fail courses. The analysis focused on the 21,931 undergraduate courses (100- through 400-level) in which letter grades were awarded.

To protect students’ privacy, VCU deleted data for some courses with small enrollments. The instructor’s name field was blank on 467 undergraduate courses. If a course was team-taught, only one instructor was listed.

As allowed under the Freedom of Information Act, VCU charged $45 for the grade distribution data, because it required one hour of programming and data processing to fulfill the request. CT

To search VCU’s grade distribution data, visit:

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