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Grade obsession doesn’t add up

Professor Murray Leaf scribbles all over his students’ term papers, jotting down praise for astute thinking and criticism for shaky arguments.

Unfortunately, most of Leaf’s students never see the comments. The University of Texas at Dallas anthropology professor makes the papers available, but only a fifth of his students retrieve them.

Students who don’t pick up their papers seem to only care about the number on their report card, Dr. Leaf says.

They’re grade-obsessed, and they’re not alone.

Today’s college students are exhibiting what has been drilled into them for years. The higher the score on state tests, the better the school. The higher your grades, the better the college you’ll attend.

Students e-mail Leaf, but few actually ask questions about the material. Rather, he says, they want to know how to improve their grades.

But don’t blame students alone for the grade fixation. More students are entering college. More are competing for plum jobs and graduate school in a bad economy.

The pressure that students feel to get an A-minus instead of a B-plus is real, and experts say professors aren’t necessarily helping. As grade obsession has increased during the last decade, so has the typical student’s grade point average, says Stuart Rojstaczer, a Duke University professor who researches grade inflation.

His study of grades at 30 public and private universities found that the spread of grades among students is narrowing. Among all 30 schools, the average GPA was 3.09 in 2001-02, compared with 2.94 the previous decade.

At Duke, the average GPA is a 3.4, says Rojstaczer, who adds that he hasn’t given a grade below a C for more than two years. He believes he must make his grades fit the Duke norm. Harvard professors have complained about being forced into the same practice. Apparently, it has had an effect – in 2001, 90 percent of Harvard students graduated with honors.

Giving all students grades above C makes many of them think they deserve stellar grades even when they don’t earn them. So professors give out high grades, and students lobby for even higher ones.

In 1998, about 700 Dallas students gathered to debate a proposed change to the grading policy. Professors wanted to add minuses to a grading scale that had only pluses. They thought the change would allow them more nuance in grading.

Students’ biggest fear? That their GPAs would decline.

The faculty suggestion won out in the end.

As a compromise, the faculty included an A-plus but refused students’ request to award extra points for that grade. Extra points would have led to 4.33 GPAs. Too pretentious, some professors said.

The new scale started in fall 2000, and the average GPA dropped, albeit slightly. It went from 3.02 in 1998 to 2.82 in 2000. Now, it’s rising again. Last fall, it was 2.95. Are students getting smarter? Are professors adjusting the grading curve? Who really knows?

Regardless, Rabea Benhalim, a Dallas junior, still wishes students had won the grading battle.

Benhalim, vice president of Dallas’ Student Government Association, wants to get into a joint law and master’s degree program at Johns Hopkins University. The program requires a 3.75 GPA. She wishes she could get points for an A-plus and not worry so much about minuses.

But this bright, active student also cares about learning. She’d rather hunger for knowledge than grades.

In a perfect world, students would never see their grades. That’s the policy at Reed College in Portland, Ore. Professors meet with students individually to give verbal and written updates about class work. Students are told about grades only if they fall below a C or if they request their transcript when they graduate.

But that kind of approach is practical only in places such as Reed, which has just 1,400 students. Still, Leaf shouldn’t have to throw away all the term papers students don’t pick up. And Rojstaczer shouldn’t have to sit alone during office hours. “It’s like being the Maytag repairman,” he says.