Grades are Valuable

Michelle Grimes-Hillman, with members of the Educational Policies Committee

At the Spring 2008 Plenary Session, the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges adopted the position paper Promoting Thoughtful Faculty Conversations about Grade Distributions. This document examined California Community College Chancellor's Office data on grades at the system level, and also in a selection of career/technical programs that have external requirements such as a licensing board. Among its conclusions is the finding that despite concern at a national level, for the California Community College (CCC) System there is no evidence of grade inflation in general. The paper also commented that it would still be valuable to hold local conversations about possible grade inflation at the level of an individual college, program or, even, faculty member. Our paper also reaffirmed that grades are an academic matter under the purview of the individual faculty member who assigns them.

The Educational Policies Committee, prompted by a resolution, has recently sought out additional information on the subject of grades. A literature review about grade inflation and student consumerism by Boretz (2004) was quick to point out that many colleges have extended their drop deadlines, thereby allowing students to drop classes and not receive the expected grade of C or below, and that factor alone can perhaps influence the grade distributions or the perception of grade distribution. Boretz asserts that grade inflation has existed but not to the degree that is perceived by the public at large. Indeed, the author concludes:

The wide acceptance of "grade inflation" has damaged the academic ethos, in general. This phrase converts knowledge or learning into commodity, with the grade being the currency earned in exchange for one's labors and redeemable by the payee for whatever he or she desires. As educators, we are held accountable to so many external and internal constituencies and are compelled to focus on learning outcomes. It is essential that we understand and convey to students that outcomes and grades are by no means the same thing. Grades can be fixed in place on a transcript. Learning is fluid and infinite in the wealth of returns. After college, pay is instrumental to satisfying our physical needs, but intellectual adaptability is the true determiner of success for any life long learner. (p.12)

The Academic Senate's 2008 paper took a similar position. One might argue that such a position might prove unnecessary if grade inflation could not be documented in the CCC System. However, one must also remember that because there has been increased external pressure from a variety of governmental and private sources to hold community colleges "accountable" for student learning, there is increased reliance on standardized testing for the Perkins VTEA funding, and a variety of other news articles have been published which call into question the integrity of faculty grades. Such considerations generated Academic Senate resolution 14.02 S08 "The Value of Grades". This resolution recommended that the Academic Senate create a follow-up paper to Promoting Thoughtful Faculty Conversations about Grade Distributions that would analyze the role of grades as a credible, valid and reliable measures of student achievement and success; share effective practices for grading, in the light of external pressures from federal and accreditation bodies; work to promote a positive public perception regarding the integrity of grades; and oppose the replacement of traditional grades with third-party, off-the-shelf testing.

The Educational Policies Committee recently conducted an examination of the scant literature regarding the value of grades. Although faculty members can place some value on the required standardized tests that supplement the curriculum in Career and Technical Education fields, these tests do not replace the value that grades provide as a holistic view of the student's performance. The literature regarding the value of grades suggests a relationship between grade point average (GPA) and/or course grades and future positive outcomes for students. This brief examination of the literature suggests the following:

  • According to research conducted by the University of California (UC), high school GPA is a better predictor for the success in the UC system and high school GPA can predict student success beyond the freshman year in four-year institutions.
  • GPA can predict persistence of students past the freshman year of college.
  • Grades can predict success in sequential coursework.
  • GPA can predict positive outcomes for students (i.e., the likelihood of transfer and the attainment of an Associate degree).

Gieser and Studley (2002) demonstrated that high school GPA in college-prep courses was the best predictor of freshman grades. Their initial research included a sample of 80,000 students admitted to the University of California. Likewise, Gieser and Sanelices (2007) found that high school GPA is the "strongest predictor of four-year college outcomes in all disciplines, campuses, and freshman cohorts" (p.1), and that its effectiveness as a predictor increases after the freshman year; and the use of GPA has a "less negative impact than standardized tests on disadvantaged and underrepresented students" (p.1). The conclusion of the authors is that admissions policies should focus more on GPA and less on standardized tests. Further, an examination of the first year college persistence (i.e., the movement of students from freshman to sophomore status) by Kahn and Nauta (2001) found first semester GPA was the primary predictor of freshman-to-sophomore persistence. Interestingly, the UC has recently modified its admissions criteria to reduce the importance of certain standardized tests.

In 2003, Dr. Rob Johnstone, then at Foothill College, examined the relationship between grades and success in sequential courses (non-Basic Skills), including the fields of accounting, biology, chemistry, and computer information systems among others. This study discovered that students receiving an "A" grade in the first course have the most successful outcomes in the second course compared to those students receiving a "C" grade in the first course. Dr. Johnstone proposes that grades in the first course of sequences are "clearly working" (i.e., they predict success in the second courses). He also proposes that the pre-requisites/advisories that are placed on the courses described in his study are also working. In other words, material learned in a first course as measured by a final course grade is necessary for success and a positive outcome in the second course (Johnstone, 2003).

Cejda and Rewey (1998) suggest that there are relationships among students' community college GPA, the likelihood that they obtain an associate degree or transfer, their subsequent upper division status, and the likelihood that they also persist until completion at the transfer institution. They also suggest that there is a relationship between community college GPA and four-year college GPA. They suggest that their results support previous findings in that the completion of an associate's degree increases the chances of degree completion at the transfer institution, and that a GPA of 3.0 or higher results in increased persistence and the attainment of a baccalaureate degree (p. 7). The literature presented suggests that grades do matter. In fact, while there is little explicitly in the literature on the value of grades, we did not find any scientific information to suggest that grades are not meaningful. Based on the sources cited in this article, it appears that grades are credible sources of information regarding the students' likelihood to persist past the first year and subsequent positive outcomes such as the attainment of a degree or to transfer to a four-year institution.

A mention about the use of standardized tests is warranted. While standardized tests may indicate that a student has a knowledge base of specific material, there is no other measure except for the "course completion grade" that can estimate whether the student has a holistic skill set that would be necessary in the workforce. In particular, the use of standardized testing in nursing and aviation provide good examples. Students may gain the knowledge needed to perform competently on the nursing licensure examination, but that does not guarantee that nursing students have the skill set to become critical thinking and nurturing caregivers. Professional competency also requires the integration and application of knowledge in real life situations. There are also skills and attitudes inherent in the student's ability to demonstrate total accountability for their nursing practice which are difficult to measure with written exams. Similarly, the aircraft pilot who passes a standardized test may have the technical knowledge to fly a plane, but it is the critical thinking skills assessed by faculty and reported through grading that provide a complete picture of the pilots' decision making skills that are so vital in emergency situations. This holistic view of the student must stem from a place other than standardized tests, and that view must come from faculty.

Finally, we remind faculty to consider the diversity of students and faculty in light of effective grading practices. Students as well as faculty are diverse in their learning styles, abilities, and educational background. As such, the meeting of these diverse groups and the assignment of grades leads one to argue that the course GPA will be calculated using a wide number and variety of assignments and measurements that reflect different skills and levels of rigor. It therefore seems likely that the final grade does indeed represent a students' ability to persist and reach his/her educational goals. Discussion about what are effective grading practices for each discipline is best left for the faculty in the discipline to decide in light of local data and local circumstances. In fact, at the Fall 2008 Plenary Session and in other previous venues, faculty made it clear that they did not want their grading practices mandated. The Academic Senate's Spring 2008 document Promoting Thoughtful Faculty Conversations about Grade Distributions provides recommendations regarding how those discussions might take place on the community college campus. Is there evidence of grade inflation on our campuses or in our disciplines? Or is this really a myth? Local senates and discipline faculty are encouraged to engage in those local or discipline-specific discussions!

Boretz, E. (2004). Grade inflation and the myth of student consumerism. College Teaching 52 (2), 42-46.

Cejda, B., & Rewey, K. (1998). The effect of academic factors on transfer student persistence and graduation: A community college to liberal arts college case study. Community College Journal of Research & Practice, 22(7), 675-686.

Gieser, S., & Sanelices, M. (2007). Research & occasional paper series: CSHE.6.07. Berkeley, CA: UC Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education.

Gieser, S,. & Studley, R. (2002). UC and the SAT: Predictive validity and the differential impact of the SAT I and SAT II at the University of California. Educational Assessment, 8 (1), 1-26.

Johnstone, R. (2003). Executive summary B17: Sequenced courses at Foothill College: A "C" grade may be the worst possible outcome. Sacramento, CA: Academic Senate for California Community Colleges.

Kahn, J., & Nauta, M. (2001). Social-Cognitive predictors of first-year college persistence: The importance of proximal assessment. Research in Higher Education 42 (6), 633-652.

The articles published in the Rostrum do not necessarily represent the adopted positions of the academic senate. For adopted positions and recommendations, please browse this website.