Colleges with alternative grading systems

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April 12, 2019
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Colleges with alternative grading systems

An A may not be worth as much as it used to and they seem to be easier to get. Surveys of colleges and universities have found that grade inflation (awarding higher grades for work that would have received a lower grade in previous years) is on the rise. A is the most common grade given by all schools except community colleges. Average GPA at four-year schools is creeping up by about 0.1 points every decade.

Critics of grade inflation believe it's being driven by a culture where students see themselves as consumers entitled to higher grades, and professors (especially those on short-term contracts) are driven to give higher grades to keep their jobs and avoid bad performance reviews. Some schools have taken steps to curb grade inflation by applying caps to the number of A's given or requiring a certain average grade for departments. For example, Princeton University implemented a limit that only 35% of students in a given class could be awarded As. Enrollment fell, and after students pointed out that lower GPAs put them at a disadvantage in graduate school admissions, the policy was rolled back in 2014.

Studies show that pressure to get the highest grades can lead to high levels of stress and more cheating. It's unclear that they work well as motivators and may instead drive students to take “easy A” courses. Grade-skeptics also point out that grades are subjective and don't necessarily indicate how well a student retains information after the big test. Some schools have looked at this data and decided the best solution might be to get rid of grades entirely.

Inspired by Best College Reviews and Voice of America, Stacker scoured college websites to find schools that use an alternative grading system. At these schools, students aren't given traditional A's and B's by their professors. Instead, these schools with alternative grading systems favor narrative transcripts, self-evaluation, and other systems that give a more holistic view of students' classroom achievement. The 12 schools featured in this article are listed in alphabetical order and come with a brief explanation of how each school chooses to grade their students.

Read on to discover which Ivy League university decided to do away with traditional letter grades and get a sneak peek at how all colleges might be grading students 50 years from now.

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Alverno College

Location: Milwaukee, Wis.

One of the nation's largest Catholic women's colleges, Alverno provides its students with a narrative transcript that takes into account the teaching style in the classroom, the learning students demonstrate, self-assessments, and in-depth feedback from professors. Students applying for scholarships, graduate schools, and other programs can request a grade equivalency if needed, but Alverno's grade-less system is a key tenant of their active, “learning by doing” curriculum.

Antioch University

Location: Five campuses—Los Angeles, Calif.; Santa Barbara, Calif.; Yellow Springs, Ohio; Seattle, Wash.; Keene, N.H.

Antioch University has replaced a report card with the Student Learning Evaluation (SLE). SLEs are submitted by professors at the end of each course taken, laying out the student's achievement of the goals in the course, areas of improvement, and if credit was awarded to them. For undergrads, credit means a student would have gotten at least a C in the course. Students can request a grade equivalent to be included in their evaluation for any course and may request a numerical GPA at any time, based on their performance. Antioch's social justice-focused curriculum also requires every student to participate in a cooperative work program that is considered in their SLEs.

Bennington College

Location: Bennington, Vt.

Students can request a letter grade at the beginning of each semester alongside their narrative evaluations, but the narrative evaluations submitted by faculty at the end of every semester make up the foundation of their transcript. These evaluations outline a student's progress, reflect their most significant work, and determine whether they ultimately pass, marginally pass, or fail. Students report that the school's dedication to comprehensive feedback makes their relationships with their professors feel less hierarchical and more relaxed, with more of a mentorship vibe.

Brown University

Location: Providence, R.I.

Brown is unique among its Ivy League peer institutions. Brown's Open Curriculum doesn't require students to take any specific general education courses, and students can choose to take as many courses as they like on a Satisfactory/No Credit (pass-fail) basis. If a course isn't taken S/NC, a student receives a grade of A, B, or C. Failing grades are not recorded, and Brown does not give students a GPA. Professors worry that grade inflation is becoming a problem at the school, and Brown is fighting a reputation as being the “easiest” Ivy League school. Students, however, love the openness of Brown's curriculum especially in comparison to other Ivies.

Fairhaven College

Location: Bellingham, Wash.

An interdisciplinary college at Western Washington University, Fairhaven College uses narrative transcripts that combine a professor's feedback with a detailed student self-evaluation at the end of each course. Fairhaven notes that the ability to self-critique is important in life after college and sees this a way to hone that skill. After completing their general education requirement at Fairhaven, students can continue in several majors offered by Fairhaven, declare a major at Western Washington University, or design their own major.

Goddard College

Location: Plainfield, Vt.

Goddard College does not give letter grades and doesn't calculate a GPA for its students. Each student designs their own curriculum based on their program of study, and students and their faculty advisers write evaluations used to decide if students should receive credit toward their degrees at the end of each semester. Students also compile and submit learning portfolios to a faculty board to demonstrate their progress. The school, while producing several notable alumni, is in danger of closing after it was put on probation for issues with financial management and meeting government education standards.

New College of Florida

Location: Sarasota, Fla.

The New College of Florida is a public honors college that requires students to complete seven “contracts” with their advisers. The contracts lay out what the student plans to accomplish during the semester (this includes internships and independent projects as well as courses) and set standards for determining success. Professors write narrative evaluations at the end of every course or project. Students like the academic environment and enjoy the rigor of their education. The student body overwhelmingly voted against a measure that would have made their mandatory senior thesis optional.

Prescott College

Location: Prescott, Ariz.

Prescott College has made grades optional and removed the Latin honors system adopted by many colleges in favor of narrative evaluations that detail “knowledge and skills acquired, opportunities for growth, and directions for future learning.” All students also complete a senior project or thesis with a real-world application. Students have mixed feelings about the academic environment, with some saying it's not challenging and others enjoying the flexibility of allowing students to shape their classroom experience.

Reed College

Location: Portland, Ore.

Reed College does give traditional grades, but students never see them. Assignments are returned with extensive comments, but official grades are rarely received, and there are no report cards. Reed notes that only 10 students have graduated with a perfect 4.0 in the past 30 years. Graduates have received a number of prestigious fellowships and scholarships, despite having lower GPAs under Reed's rigorous curriculum.

Sarah Lawrence College

Location: Bronxville, N.Y.

Sarah Lawrence, a small liberal arts college, does give formal grades in every class that students take. However, they combine a traditional transcript with a narrative evaluation and an assessment of six critical skills: analytical thinking, oral communication, written communication, innovation, independent work, and accepting criticism. They offer alternatives to traditional majors, incredibly small class sizes, and bi-weekly individual meetings with professors. Students say they adore their professors and the style of their classes, reporting that professors are actively engaged in student learning.

St. John's College - Annapolis

Location: Annapolis, Md.

St. John's College - Annapolis only offers one major: liberal arts. Centered on a “Great Books” curriculum, St. John's students take classes in ancient Greek and Western literature while “tutors” facilitate classroom discussion in a small group setting. Tutors assign a letter grade at the end of each semester so students interested in attending graduate school or applying for other programs can provide a GPA to graduate schools and employers. However, students are not routinely informed of their grades. Instead, students receive feedback throughout the semester and through semesterly “don rags.” These formal meetings allow students to discuss with their tutors and receive advice; by senior year, students evaluate themselves.

The Evergreen State College

Location: Olympia, Wash.

The interdisciplinary approach of The Evergreen State College allows students to design their own interdisciplinary courses of study. Similarly, they put a strong emphasis on student self-evaluations in their grading process. These are paired with evaluations from professors on a narrative transcript. Students and faculty are encouraged to meet during Evaluation Week to discuss transcript evaluations as well as student evaluations of their teachers. Enrollment at the school has recently dropped after a series of protests around issues of race and freedom of speech on campus. However, students appreciate the collaborative academic experience and feel listened to by their professors, thanks to the evaluation process.

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