Making the grade: UA's plus/minus debate

By Kylee Dawson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Monday, August 9, 2004

Will the UA adopt a plus/minus grading system?

Near every semester's end, students across campus can be found cramming for exams and calculating points, desperately trying to raise borderline grades to increase their GPAs.

But trying to stretch a high B into a low A could all be moot in the future, as UA administrators are beginning to look at adopting a plus/minus grading system similar to that being implemented at Arizona State University this fall.

However, that change won't be happening anytime soon, said Jerry Hogle, vice provost for instruction at the UA.

"Obviously, ASU has raised the issue for some people, so we should talk about it in an organized way," he said.

The UA is one of only a few schools across the country not to have such a system, and is the only Pac-10 school to not have plus/minus grading.

While the issue is largely speculation at this point, the system would serve to further distinguish work in a particular class beyond the five basic letter grades.

For example, a student who gets an A- in a particular class would receive less than a 4.0 for that course, while a student who gets an A+ would get something above a 4.0.

That is the biggest concern for UA students, as the system would directly impact their GPAs, said Alistair Chapman, student body president.

"My guess would be that if students were in significant opposition to it again, that the university wouldn't administer such a system," Chapman said.

Feasibility of implementation

Even if a plus/minus grading system was implemented, Hogle said the UA's computer system would have to be updated to include a column for plusses and minuses.

"Even if for some reason we decided tomorrow to do this, we couldn't technically (do it) for two years," he said.

"Right now, the UA system can't do it, but the new system that we're working toward could do that. So it's gonna take time, no matter what."

Chapman said he wants to examine the other universities that use a plus/minus grading system to see how students are affected by it.

"I know about 80 percent of universities nationwide have a plus/minus system," he said.

"By not having one, we're in the minority. So, I think it could be worthwhile to look at the schools that have one and see just how it works compared to the schools that don't."

Hogle also said that the UA admissions process would not really be affected unless potential students transfer from a school that does not use a plus/minus grading system.

"We would obviously have to decide if were going to transfer those grades as A-minuses or B-minuses or whether they would transfer over as As and Bs," he said.

A similar process goes for scholarships too.

"If you decided to go to that, you would then have to reevaluate what would be the provisions for scholarship eligibility because you would, in effect, have 15 different numbers instead of four or five," Hogel said.

Effect on students

In addition to worrying about their GPAs, Hogel explained that students have objected to having a plus/minus grading system in the past because many felt they would have to compete with graduate schools and other universities that did not use a similar system.

However, some UA students are in favor of having a plus/minus grading system, including journalism junior Martin McClarron.

"I'm in favor 'cause for students who are getting A-pluses all the time, it's a really good thing," he said.

"It will definitely boost your GPA," he said.

Still, other students don't like the idea of the plus/minus grading system.

"I don't think it's fair to those people that are going to be graduating because those people who graduated before didn't have a plus or a minus," said Alicia Bell, also a journalism junior.

"The minuses bring the GPA down for those people who got an A-minus or B-minus. The people who are going to get plusses aren't going to care because the plusses are only going to help them whereas, [for] the people who got minuses, it could keep them from getting the recognition that they wanted to get. To me, I don't think it's fair."

As a molecular and cellular biology senior, Chapman said that in certain science classes, a 70 percent score in the class could equal an A. But there is no way to distinguish a student with a 70 percent and a student with a 90 percent.

"It gives a way to distinguish students who are performing great and students who are performing good," he said of the advantage of having a plus/minus grading system.

But Chapman said he can also see the cons.

"I think it could potentially hurt students. It can put a lot more workload on faculty members."

At this time, Chapman said it is too early to take a stance on whether having a plus/minus grading system is a good idea or not.

"I'm not opposed to exploring the possibility, but that doesn't necessarily mean that I'm in support of it," he said, adding that he would like to see how ASU handles the system.

Professors' choice

If a plus/minus grading system were implemented, professors would have the choice of using it or not, according to Hogle.

If the extra column were in place in the computer system, professors could use pluses and minuses, but they could also just give their students straight grades.

"At no time have we ever forced professors to give a certain number of As, Bs or Cs, Hogle said.

"The same goes if they want to give pluses or minuses."

Hogle said that because there has yet to be a poll among UA professors, there is no way to know how many would be in favor of or against using a plus/minus grading system.

However, about three years ago, Hogle said that some professors expressed their interest in having a plus/minus grading system since they believe that it will more accurately reflect the work of their students.

"Some feel pressured to give As and Bs, but they think being able to differentiate the grades with pluses and minuses is more attractive," Hogel said.

Even though a plus/minus grading system has not been used at the UA, some faculty and other instructors have worked with such a grading system at other institutions.

Steven K. Croft, a senior science education specialist and astronomer at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, has taught undergraduate courses at the UA.

Having taught courses at other colleges, including Pima Community College, Croft said he has used both the standard straight grade system and a plus/minus system.

"I'm not sure that going plus/minus really adds that much except (it) makes people who like counting decimal places a bit happier," he said.

"I guess the bottom line is that grades are uncertain by at least a half a grade, based on exams."

However, when grading based on a point system, Croft said that it is easier to group and distinguish the students who do well and the students who do poorly.

"In terms of actually reflecting what the students learned, I'm not that sure that it adds that much to accuracy," he said.

Types of grading systems

When it comes to selecting a plus/minus grading system, "there are all manner of variations," said Nassirian Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Pluses and minus typically only apply to passing grades, not failing grades, he said. Some colleges only record pluses, others only record minuses.

"We believe that every university in the United States should have a grading system that its faculty believes best reflects their collective judgment and does the best job of recording student performance," Nassirian said.

"We don't believe that any one system is right for every place. All kinds of variations add to the richness of the American education system and the last thing we'd want to see is for everybody to be doing the same thing."

While implementing such a system is a long way off, Hogle said he plans on bringing the notion to the undergraduate council this fall.

"If the undergraduate council, which includes students and faculty, was to discuss the matter this fall, I'm going to sort of bring it to their table and see if they want to take it up."