The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Education is that which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding."...  ...Ambrose Bierce

Commentary of the Day - June 15, 2001: Who Owns My Grades Anyhow?

It always comes as a shock to find out that you have been laboring under a misapprehension.  But, it is even more of a shock to learn that you have been so laboring for more than 30 years.

For all of that time the Irascible Professor had assumed that he had pretty much the last word when it came to the grades that he gave to his students at the end of the semester.  After all, the IP's chosen discipline -- physics -- is not for the faint of heart.  Every problem on a quiz or test presents its own unique challenges and pitfalls.  The IP's quizzes and tests generally have been carefully crafted to give him some insight not only into what the student has learned, but also some insight about how well the student understands the new concepts that he or she has encountered.  These are not run-of-the-mill multiple choice tests for the most part.  Instead, the IP's students are expected to struggle through the detailed solution of the problem step-by-step.

In many respects these tests and quizzes are works of art.  They have been designed to give both the weak and the strong students an opportunity to show how much understanding they have gained, and they also have designed to give the IP an idea about how well he has been connecting with the students.  The IP's grading process, itself, has been carefully honed over the years to ensure that students are treated both fairly and reasonably.  Assigning the final grades has become a complicated exercise that takes into account the varying difficulty of each quiz and test as well as the possibility that a student can have a very bad day now and then (the lowest midterm grade for each student is dropped for example).

After putting this much effort into developing a grading system that is both informative and fair, the IP was more than a bit surprised to learn that some bozo in the administration could come along and change the IP's grades at will.  Not that this has actually happened here at Krispy Kreme U., but a recent ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third District has opened the door wide to such mischief.

In a case involving a tenured faculty member from California University of Pennsylvania, the U.S. Court of Appeals recently ruled that the faculty member's First Amendment rights were not violated when the University president changed an "F" to an "incomplete" for a grad student who had attended only three of 15 required class sessions.  The Court ruled that grading is a pedagogic activity that is included in a university's right to determine how a course is to be taught.  Under this theory the grade change by the university president is simply an administrative decision by the employer.

In the IP's view, this has to be one of dumbest decisions to come out of any U.S. court in a long time.  If there is any part of the academic process that requires academic judgment, it has to be the awarding of final grades in a course.  Certainly a student should have the right to appeal a grade.  However, grading is not simply an administrative function of the university.  Appeals should be judged on academic merit only, except where circumstances beyond the control of the student such as illness require an "incomplete" to be given.

The job of adjudicating grade disputes should be in the hands of a group that is familiar with the academic enterprise, and which provides due process to both the faculty member and the student.  Here at Krispy Kreme U. this task is handled by a committee that includes retired faculty members and students.  The committee has an excellent reputation for carrying out its duties fairly and thoroughly.  In the entire history of the university the committee has been able to carry out its duties with no interference from the administration.  And, that's as it should be.  Grades clearly are the prerogative of the faculty.

Placing the power to make arbitrary grade changes in the hands of administrators could have some very unfortunate consequences.  For example, will major donors be able to "buy" administrative grade changes for their offspring?  Will the rules be bent for students who are star athletes?  The possibilities for mischief are so great that the ruling of the Third District must be reconsidered.

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