Grading system spurs controversy at South Carolina college

By
Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Two professors at Benedict College in South Carolina were fired recently for refusing to systematically factor effort into students’ grades.

Effort became a part of grading at Benedict when the university approved a program called Success Equals Effort in the fall of 2003. The program dictates that 60 percent of freshmen’s grades be awarded based on effort, with the remaining 40 percent based on academic performance. The emphasis on effort is phased out as students progress. For sophomore classes, effort and performance are weighted equally and effort is not required in grading for junior and senior courses.

But Benedict’s new SEE policy is not merely a suggested guideline for Benedict faculty. The university fired two professors last June for refusing to pass students who failed course material but received A’s in effort.

Benedict President David Swinton said the policy allows students without strong study skills to adjust to the rigors of college courses. Benedict is an open enrollment institution, so virtually any student with a high school diploma is accepted to the school. For this reason, many students come to Benedict without all the skills necessary to be successful in college, Swinton said.

Science professors Milwood Motley and Larry Williams both refused to follow the SEE policy and were subsequently fired. Motley was terminated when he failed a student whose highest grade on any test was a 40 percent and refused to recalculate the grade according to SEE, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. “(The two professors) were fired merely for insubordination … they refused to follow the policy,” Swinton said.

Motley appealed Swinton’s decision to Benedict’s Faculty and Staff Grievance and Appeals Committee, and the committee voted 4-3 to recommend rescinding Motley’s termination. But Swinton said the committee provided no valid basis for its recommendation, and as the final arbiter in the matter, Swinton upheld his previous decision to fire Motley.

Williams also came before different members of the university’s appeals committee to contest his termination, but in this case the committee recommended upholding the decision to fire Williams with a 5-2 vote.

Swinton said students have mostly reacted positively to the policy but that SEE is commonly misunderstood. He said a lot of people incorrectly think the policy guarantees students a letter grade of C because of the acronym’s pronunciation. But it only “guarantees that students that make an A in effort will make a satisfactory grade.”

Despite criticism, Swinton said that because effort is only taken into account in a student’s freshman and sophomore years, SEE does not allow students to graduate from Benedict without demonstrating satisfactory performance in their coursework.

Swinton said Benedict fully intends to keep the SEE policy in the future, but in the meantime the college is evaluating the effectiveness of the policy.

“We intend to look at the relationship between the effort grade and the knowledge grade … which will allow us to see if there is any relationship between effort and (a student’s) ability to succeed in college,” Swinton said.

Benedict also plans to compare students in the SEE program with students who attended Benedict before the policy’s inception. The comparison will be on the basis of standardized testing, employer surveys and the number of students who go to graduate schools, said Swinton.

Brown Senior Lecturer in Education Lawrence Wakeford has studied the effects of various grading systems and has argued that grades can prove detrimental to learning. Wakeford said Benedict’s SEE policy represents an admirable effort to deemphasize grades in the learning process, but mandating effort-based grading may prove challenging to implement on an institutional level.

“What’s going to be critical is if they have identified some useful ways to assess the effort,” he said. Wakeford said any attempt to evaluate a student’s effort in a course risks unfairly favoring one student over another. He mentioned that it might prove especially difficult to evaluate effort in large classes.

Swinton said Benedict intends to allow individual departments and faculty members to define effort as they see fit. As a bare minimum, attendance and completion assignments should be included in the effort grade, but Benedict wants faculty to individually define what is necessary to do well in a class when calculating the effort grade, Swinton said.

Unlike Benedict, Brown has no strict guidelines that dictate how professors calculate their grades, according to Dean Jonathan Waage, who is also a professor of biology. In a written statement, Waage said that “grading style is left up to the faculty. Some of us use a relative performance scale (where the student starts in a course versus where they end up), others grade against a target standard, still others favor effort.”

This doesn’t mean that Brown isn’t constantly re-evaluating the role of grades at the University, however. In October 2002, the College Curriculum Council began a year-long examination of how grades are used at Brown in what began as an effort to determine whether pluses and minuses should appear on Brown transcripts.

According to Waage, this ultimately prompted a discussion of the multiplicity of roles that grades play at Brown and of the inherent limitations in graded assessments. The CCC ultimately decided not to recommend the addition of pluses and minuses to Brown’s grading system but suggested that the campus continue to actively engage in a discussion of the role of evaluation at Brown.