GPA v Degree Class: a “Goldilocks” solution?

As UK looks at GPA, US considers degree class

There has been a debate in UK Higher Education for the past few years about the merits of moving away from traditional degree classifications to a US style Grade Point Average (GPA). A recent piece in the Guardian notes the arguments for moving to GPA in the UK:

Employers say that it is very difficult to differentiate between students. The 2:1 degree classification, for example, fails to distinguish between someone who attained 60%, and another who achieved 69.9%. In a competitive jobs market, employers want more information about the candidates they are considering for jobs. This means knowing whether candidates came at the low or high end of a classification. Moving to a grade point average would give that extra detail, showing students’ average grade to two decimal points as they proceed through their degree.

There are many other positive arguments too and a group of universities is currently involved in trialling the approach alongside current models.
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It is more than a little surprising therefore to see an argument about moving the other way.  A piece in The Atlantic by Heidi Tworek is quoted by EAB and looks at the merits of moving from GPA to UK-style degree classification in order to address grade inflation. The so-called “Goldilocks” solution:

Other schools have gone to the opposite extreme. Bennington College and Reed College, along with eight others, have abolished grades altogether. Tworek argues that the best solution is somewhere between the existing models—a “Goldilocks” solution that bridges the extremes. And she thinks it might be found already at universities in England. In the United Kingdom, students receive one of only three marks: first, second, or third. Second is by far the most common grade; 76% of students graduate with a second-designated degree. Only the truly exceptional students—about 19%—receive a first-class degree. The system carries several benefits, argues Tworek. Employers do not look down on second-marked degrees, generally accepting it as a mark of quality. Furthermore, the simpler system “removes the narcissism inherent in minor differences,” she writes. Finally, the system still distinguishes degrees just enough to give students, teachers, and employers a sense of the student’s performance.

Similar arguments are therefore deployed in both cases with proponents suggesting that employers will like the results better, grade inflation will be challenged and differentiation between students enhanced. So, GPA or degree classification, which way will it go?

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2 thoughts on “GPA v Degree Class: a “Goldilocks” solution?

  1. The argument quoted at the top is not an argument for GPA. It is an argument for more fine-grained information–which could be provided more easily by publishing course marks. The difference between GPA and course marks lies in the extent to which they punish inconsistency in module marks. No advocate of GPA seems to bother making the case for GPA’s policy on this (a few low marks make more impact on GPA than on course mark as currently calculated). Instead we get the point about fine grained information — which is no argument at all in favour of GPA!

  2. Chris makes an excellent point. If employers are concerned about differentiating between graduates, they can just ask for the graduate’s final averages. It is just as easy to state “Applicants must have a 65+” as it is to state “Applicants must have an upper-second-class degree”: employers would just need to see the transcript instead of the degree certificate.

    The biggest advantage of the GPA system appears to be rewarding consistency, as it favours individuals who got consistent marks over those who, e.g., did relatively poorly in their second year but managed to pull up their average with better final year performance (full disclosure: I’m in the latter camp).

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