Plus/minus fails key test

Faculty could still vote to change grading system

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Correction appended.

The College Curriculum Council voted Tuesday against adding pluses and minuses to Brown’s grading system. The six-to-seven vote followed nearly an hour and a half of debate on the pros and cons of pluses and minuses.

The CCC drafted six possible changes to the grading system but ultimately voted against sending any proposal for more differentiated grading to the Faculty Executive Committee, the body that sets the agenda for faculty meetings.

Since the FEC is made up entirely of professors, and the faculty as a whole ultimately decides on any changes to the curriculum, the CCC represents the last chance for students to have an official voice in the decision-making process.

The six changes proposed were to add pluses and minuses to all letter grades; to add pluses and minuses but omit the A-plus grade; to add only pluses; to add pluses and minuses to only B’s and C’s; to use pluses and minuses on internal transcripts only; and to add new grades of A/B and B/C to the current system.

As a result of the vote, the plus/minus proposal will not be brought to the entire faculty by the CCC, but professors still have the power to suggest changes to the curriculum by requesting that the FEC add their proposal to the faculty agenda for a vote.

Dean of the College Paul Armstrong, who chairs the CCC, told The Herald the next step is to inform Dean of the Graduate School Sheila Bonde that the CCC is not proposing anything to the FEC. The Graduate Council has already voted to send the FEC a proposal to introduce pluses and minuses to the Grad School’s grading system.

Armstrong said during the meeting that changes to the undergraduate College’s grading system would likely be discussed by the faculty if it considers the proposal to add pluses and minuses to the Grad School grading system.

Jonathan Waage, professor of biology and senior adviser to the dean, was one of the seven CCC members who voted against pluses and minuses. Although he said he was “opposed to any change at all,” he proposed the A/B, B/C option “if we have to go in that direction.” He believed this was a better way to address concerns “about the number of boxes we have to put students in.” The four student members of the CCC also opposed any change.

Although most of the committee’s deliberations concerned the merits of the various suggested grading systems, they also addressed the issue of who should be making this decision.

Waage said this “is a faculty decision to make but it is not a faculty issue – it is a University issue.” He said he would vote against any change for pedagogical reasons.

James Dreier, professor of philosophy, said in the meeting that conversations with students over the past few weeks have changed his opinion. He reminded the committee they are “supposed to represent the University community.”

“There is something to be said for deferring to the people who this most affects,” whether the committee agrees with them or not, Dreier said.

Luther Spoehr, lecturer in education and vice chair of the council, and Armstrong both advocated for changing the system. Spoehr argued that the lack of definition in the current system “increases your grade consciousness to an unhealthy degree” because students “hate” getting B’s. He also raised the concern that the profusion of A’s on Brown transcripts that are now respected because of the University’s name has the potential to cause “an erosion of that reputation.”

Spoehr joined others in dismissing the possibility of changing the system in the future so that it would not apply to current Brown students, arguing that if the new system is better than the current one, “it is better now.”

Lynne deBenedette, senior lecturer in Slavic languages, said she always assigns pluses and minuses when she grades students, but “would not support any proposal that had an A-plus in it.”

Armstrong, a vocal advocate of adding pluses and minuses, argued, ultimately to no avail, “I see all these A’s, and I haven’t a clue what they mean.”