As sent to Queen’s Senators by Ryan Marchildon on 28 February 2012 (with minor corrections by the authors). See also Ryan Marchildon, “Letter to Senate on the GPA System.”
To our friends and colleagues at Queen’s University:
QueensYOU is spearheading a movement to address several concerns regarding the present implementation of the GPA scheme. Although this issue has been the subject of debate for quite some time, we would like to present the real facts: students are beginning to report difficulties in seeking scholarships, graduate studies and employment that are directly related to the abrupt discontinuation of percentage-based grades.
Here are some of the most common complaints:
1. Students with averages between 80% and 85% are being refused candidacy for external scholarships because their GPA mark is below the required threshold. Furthermore, for identical reasons, many students who previously qualified for Honours/Dean’s List are no longer eligible. [This is particularly hurtful to students in the transition since earlier grades were assigned according to the percentage system – thus a 79.4% that might otherwise have been bumped up to an 80% to make the next GPA level was instead kept as a 79.4%.]
2. Potential employers are annoyed that they can no longer contrast a student’s performance with respect to that of his or her peers. A GPA grade, especially when unaccompanied by a rank or class average for comparison, is not providing enough context to make this assessment.
3. Some students applying to competitive institutions are being provided with letters from their departments to explain why their GPAs do not meet the application requirements, even though their raw percentage grades do. But the highly competitive nature of top schools makes it uncertain whether such explanatory letters will be taken into consideration. In addition, when asked to electronically submit their grades, the lack of any percentage grade whatsoever in recently-completed courses forces them to abandon the option of stating percent grades altogether. [As outlined in point #4 below, the percent grades often better-distinguish them from other candidates]
4. Many of the top-performing students are no longer distinguished under the GPA scale. A student with an average of 92-94% in the technical sciences, with upwards of a quarter of all courses having a score of 95% or greater, easily finds themselves ambiguously lumped within the 85-90% GPA category. Similarly, the large group of students with scores in the 80s are lumped into two ‘baskets’, making it difficult to differentiate individual performances (i.e. 89% means the same as an 85%).
5. Finally, student performance becomes artificially distorted when translated from one GPA scale to another. This is particularly a problem for students looking to represent the Queen’s degree abroad. Conversely, a percentage grade is universally understood and can be converted to any scale with far less distortion. [If you are interested, here is a brief glance at some of the scales used here and elsewhere]:
- Queen’s University – 4.3 scale, nonlinear (i.e. abrupt transitions, 79.9% = 3.3, 80.0% = 3.7)
- University of Toronto – 4.0 scale, nonlinear
- Princeton – 4.0 scale, linear (i.e. no abrupt transitions, 86% = 3.1, 87% = 3.2, 88% = 3.3, etc)
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology – 5.0 scale, linear
- Many German Institutions – works backwards with 1.0 being the highest, 4.0 being among the lowest.
Here is what we intend to do about it:
It is clear to us that the present system is detrimental to the success of our students. Our proposal is simple: the GPA scale will continue to be used for internal assessments (i.e. pass/fail, degree awarded/degree denied), but official transcripts will be augmented with two additional pieces of information: raw percentage grade received and the course average. This is similar to the implementation found at the University of Toronto, as well as in some departments at McGill University. Such a modification would rectify most of the issues addressed above. We are confident that by working cooperatively with the administration, a feasible way of implementing this improvement can be found.
To have a hope of succeeding, however, this issue must remain alive within the University Senate. In the past, policy-makers have not adequately responded to requests by staff and faculty to address these concerns. Consequently we are organizing a student-run initiative to make the administration aware of the severity of the issue and the number of those affected. We will be attempting to have these concerns voiced directly to the Senate through student representatives. We will also be initiating a letter-writing campaign to help underscore the number of students who feel that they are being disadvantaged.
Here is how you can help:
If you find yourself identifying with many of the points above, or if you feel that your students have similar concerns, we invite you to encourage your classes and colleagues to discuss this issue and ways in which they can get involved in the push for change. For more information, students can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or join our Facebook group, “Fix Our Transcripts: The QueensYOU Campaign” (www.facebook.com/groups/312695085454131/). The Facebook group is a new addition but will soon feature many events/actions that students can directly participate in to voice their opinions.
The time to act is now. This could be our last chance.
Cha Gheill! – QueensYOU
I list below some of my concerns about the Queen’s grading/unit system that was introduced 3 years ago.
1. Equitable treatment of all students. The hallmark of any good grading system is that it treats all students fairly. This was the case with our old per cent system, since students received either a graded pass or a graded failure (51 ways to pass, 50 ways to fail) in courses. Our new GP system fails this most fundamental test since students are now given a graded pass (12 ways to pass) or a non-graded failure (1 way to fail), in essence treating students who fail a course in a discriminatory way. The justification for this is that this type of discrimination is wide-spread (i.e done by many other institutions) and is therefore OK; this is nonsense. This non-graded failure is also now included in the cum GPA, so that students get a double dose of discrimination (failures were not previously included in cum averages).
2. Intentional mis-use of data. The calculation of cumulative GPAs to two places of decimal on the basis of a GP data from a coarse, non-linear grade scale constitutes the intentional mis-use of data for the purpose of evaluating student performance, and is inconsistent with the principles of Academic Integrity. In the old % system, the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science calculated cumulative averages to the nearest whole number because grades were reported in whole numbers; they did not calculate cumulative % averages to a tenth of a per cent because it was considered to be intentional mis-use of data and therefore inconsistent with the professional ethics that they were trying to instill in their students. The current justification for intentional mis-use of data in evaluating student performance is that it is OK because other institutions do it. This is, of course, merely institutional hypocrisy.
3. Evaluting students for scholarships and other awards. After the grading/unit system was changed in May 2009, the Senate Committee on Academic Procedures met several times to try to figure out how to award the Governor General’s Medal to the top undergraduate student and realized it couldn’t because the new grading system lacked the ability to differentiate students at the top end of the performance spectrum. A modified scale going to 4.3 instead of 4.0 was subsequently introduced to try to alleviate this problem. I would point out that there are hundreds of merit-based scholarships handed out every year at the Department, Faculty and University level. As one example, in the Chemistry Department we have 1000 students who take 1st year chemistry every year; 3% of those students achieve a grade of A+ and are therefore eligible for the Neish Prize ($300). Do we divide it amongst 30 students? No, we do what many department on campus now have to do – we keep a department database of per cent grades so that we can make decisions on merit-based awards since the University system is inadequate for this purpose.
4. The Queen’s grading and unit system (!). In May, 2009 the Chair of SCAP stated in Senate “A standard university-wide system will ease transfer of credits between faculties and programs across Queen’s.” Well we don’t have a standard Queen’s system; we have multiple grading and multiple unit systems. So we end up with students in, for example, a Con-Ed program who are graded on a 4.3 point scale in A&S, but a 4.0 scale in Education. Or we have students take a Chemistry course in A&S that is 3.0 units, but its 4.5 units in AppSci. The senior adminstrators at Queen’s have effectively done the opposite of the intent – they have implemented a system which inhibits the transfer of credits, grades and courses across faculties and programs.
Very well said, and thanks for saying it!
I am chairing an OGS panel now for doctoral studentships, and Universities with ABC’s get their students shortchanged, exactly because you cannot tell how good they are.