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UNC’s New Grading System Could Show What That ‘A’ Is Really Worth

An image of a sample transcript with contextual grading.

Student transcripts from the University of North Carolina will look pretty different this fall. Beyond course grades and GPAs, the records will also include the median grade and where the student ranked among their classmates.

Sociology Professor Andrew Perrin is leading the charge for the transition to "contextual grading."

“I think this is both about reinforcing our ability to offer excellent education and then also being faithful and fair in our reporting about how well we think students have actually performed in the classroom,” Perrin said.

He said the average student grade has been steadily rising, making it more difficult to represent outstanding work.

Perrin said he hopes faculty will reconsider their grading structure. Perrin said this change should also encourage students to take challenging classes instead of trying to pad their GPAs with easy ones.

“There may be fewer high-grading classes available for those sorts of things to happen,” said Perrin. “The other piece of it, I think, is that it will be transparent when it has happened. It will be easy for us to go and look at transcripts and data and identify places if there have been those sorts of anomalies.”

Perrin says this contextual grading model has been in the works for years, long before the scandal broke, alleging that student athletes were encouraged to take easy or "no show" classes. He says this should curb such a trend in the future.

Students who have faithfully worked in really difficult classes and gotten adequate grades, those students are going to look better.

“It's a trade-off,” Perrin explained. “Students who have faithfully worked in really difficult classes and gotten adequate grades, those students are going to look better. And students who have worked to find high-grading classes and not particularly worked hard in those classes… Those are going to look worse.”

Perrin says UNC's model is unlike recent grading reforms at many other universities. He says he hopes by getting the word out, other institutions will value UNC's grades and consider similar reforms.

Rebecca Martinez produces podcasts at WUNC. She’s been at the station since 2013, when she produced Morning Edition and reported for newscasts and radio features. Rebecca also serves on WUNC’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accountability (IDEA) Committee.
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