UC Berkeley may combat grade inflation through new system

Samantha Rosenbaum/Staff
Students can order transcripts at Cal Student Central. UC Berkeley is considering a proposal to add contextual information to transcripts.

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UC Berkeley may change its transcripts to better contextualize students’ grades in an effort to combat grade inflation at universities across the nation.

If enacted, the policy would add information such as a student’s percentile rank and average course grade to students’ transcripts. The move follows a similar change approved by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in the spring of 2011 that is set to take effect this year.

“It’s become clear that grade inflation is a significant problem,” said UNC professor of sociology Andrew Perrin, who led the initial steps toward integrating contextual grading at UNC. “A few years ago, this may have been more controversial, but I think there’s a pretty large degree of consensus.”

Historically, the average GPA at UC Berkeley has been markedly lower than at peer universities, potentially placing graduates at a disadvantage when finding a job or getting into graduate school. In 2005, the average grade awarded at UC Berkeley was a 3.24, compared to a 3.55 at Stanford University, according to the most recent data compiled by Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke University geophysics professor who has researched grade inflation.

“Compared to other schools we compete with, we’ve had relatively less grade inflation,” said Ronald Cohen, chair of UC Berkeley’s committee on educational policy. “It sends a strong signal of all kinds to employers about the quality of education here.”

Some question whether the policy may increase pressure for grades on students and hinder collaboration in smaller classroom settings. Yet, according to Bob Jacobsen, former chair of the UC Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate and current associate dean for the College of Letters and Science, a more nuanced approach to selecting what types of information to place on a transcript may help to resolve this problem.

“In my discussion of this across campus, most of the objections are about very special cases,” Jacobsen said. “How do you handle specific senior seminars where everyone is a specialist? I would phrase it as, what’s the right context to put on the transcript?”

The campus hopes to develop a more detailed proposal within the next one to two years, according to Cohen.

Still, technological limitations at the campus level will make implementation difficult.

“The reality is that our computers just can’t do this right now,” Jacobsen said. “We won’t be able to implement the policy until new student systems arrive.”

According to Jacobsen, current student systems — including the computers and programs underlying BearFacts, Tele-BEARS the DB2 system for transcripts — are outdated and ill-equipped for change.

“I think done well, it can be very valuable,” he said. “I think that the faculty have to figure out a way to do this well and get the best possible result from it.”

Contact Mia Shaw at [email protected].