Deflating academic inequity

CAMPUS ISSUES: Contextual grading at UC Berkeley could be beneficial for many students, but only if the system takes a nuanced approach.

If implemented appropriately, contextualized grades may prove to be a major benefit to UC Berkeley students. Across the country, rampant grade inflation has cheapened the value of high letter grades, and while the campus has generally followed this trend, the average grade awarded to Berkeley students has been noticeably lower than that of their private peers. Adding more information to transcripts could go a long way toward leveling the playing field among students competing for jobs or admission to graduate schools.

Following in the footsteps of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — which approved contextualized grading in 2011 — UC Berkeley officials are in the process of exploring the creation of a similar system, which might entail adding information like percentile rank and a course’s  average grade to transcripts. Due to grade inflation, a comparison between GPAs at Berkeley and schools such as Harvard is deeply flawed; more context would make that juxtaposition fairer.

But putting context into grading also poses significant risks. If applied categorically, contextualized grading could unnecessarily make the classroom even more competitive by forcing students to focus too much on besting their classmates instead of learning. While it would have an obvious benefit for tougher classes that are strictly graded — and are often already extremely competitive — the impact could be damaging to smaller courses that place a stronger emphasis on collaborative learning. Therefore, administrators need to be very cautious in their approach to applying this system.

Professors should have the flexibility to use contextualized grading judiciously. Since instructors know what grading system will provide the best service to their students given the course material, they should also be able to choose exactly what context is recorded.

While context appears to be an overall win for most UC Berkeley students, it would mean even more if our competitor universities followed suit. Communicating the factors behind Berkeley grading can only go so far — employers and graduate schools should be able to see the same kind of information from the likes of Harvard and Stanford.

Right now, UC Berkeley is not equipped to implement contextualized grading because the campus’s technology cannot handle it, according to Bob Jacobsen, associate dean for the College of Letters and Science. Officials look like they will be working on a proposal over the next year or two. With that much time to develop a sound plan, they should be able to brainstorm a nuanced approach that would make the grading change beneficial to all students. Those responsible for crafting the proposal must also carefully monitor how contextualized grading fares at UNC. If it fails there, it could very well fail here.

In all, contextualized grading will almost certainly be a positive change, so long as it doesn’t transform the atmosphere of the English department into the cutthroat environment of the Haas School of Business. But so far, all signs indicate that context will help a lot of UC Berkeley students.