In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates compares the person who battles for genuine political reform to a doctor. This doctor, in Socrates’ analogy, is called up on child-abuse charges. His accuser is a pastry chef. Moreover, the jury assembled to decide the doctor’s fate consists entirely of small children. The pastry chef’s case for the prosecution consists of simply reminding the kids that he has always provided them tasty treats, whereas the doctor forces them to consume nasty-tasting concoctions. Doubtless, says Socrates, the child-jury will be persuaded by the pastry chef, dooming the doctor.
At the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC), some might wonder whether political reform has been defeated again by children—or by adult administrators kowtowing to children. Here’s what happened:
Beginning in 2009, the UNC Faculty Council deliberated over how best to take on the scandal of college grade inflation. As I documented here, a 50-plus-year nationwide study of the history of college grading finds that, in the early 1960s, an A grade was awarded in colleges nationwide 15 percent of the time. But today, an A is the most common grade given in college; the percentage of A grades has tripled, to 45 percent nationwide. Seventy-five percent of all grades awarded now are either A’s and B’s.
Employers have known about grade inflation for years, which is why their most common complaint to me is that college transcripts have become less and less meaningful. After all, virtually all new college graduates sport nothing but A’s and B’s on their transcripts. For the same reason, grade inflation also hinders the ability of graduate school admissions boards to differentiate meaningfully among transcripts.
To combat grade inflation on its campus, the UNC Faculty Council passed a resolution establishing “contextualized transcripts,” which it directed to begin by Fall 2012.
Here’s an approximation of what a contextualized transcript would look like:
“English Lit.: Individual Student’s Grade: A. (Average grade for the class: C+)”
So, all UNC wanted to do was to place each student’s grade in each class in its proper context, which would restore some valid basis for comparing student achievement—something very much lacking in today’s grade-inflated transcripts. Kudos to UNC for having taken this on.
That’s the good news. Here’s the bad. Five years later, in 2017, UNC still hadn’t instituted contextualized grading. Why?
It wasn’t because the task was too daunting; Dartmouth and Columbia have had comparable measures for years. Dartmouth transcripts provide median grades, “along with the number of courses in which the student exceeded, equaled or came in lower than those medians.” Columbia transcripts provide “the percentage of students in the course who earned an A.”
Yet UNC blamed its failure to do likewise on “technological challenges.”
The Educational Policy Committee (EPC) reported in 2017 that, “in weighing all available evidence, the EPC concludes that the technical challenges associated with accurately producing a contextualized transcript, coupled with the prohibitive costs associated with generating such a transcript make the implementation of the Contextual Grading Transcript, (either as an official or unofficial transcript of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) impracticable at this time.”
The EPC’s ruling was based on a working group’s report that based its negative recommendation on “two primary factors: the potential inconsistency in how the contextualized information would be consumed by those we send transcripts to and the technological challenges that currently exist for producing a transcript for all students that is consistent in form, and also readable and understandable.”
Among the apparently insurmountable obstacles faced by UNC’s effort to institute contextualized transcripts was the fact that “an individual student’s transcript can change multiple times without any changes to their own record.” Critics note that this is also true of Columbia and Dartmouth, but it does not seem to have stopped them from doing the right thing.
The next insuperable obstacle faced by UNC consisted in its effort to enhance the “readability and overall understanding of the Contextualized Transcript” through replacing the numerical percentage ranges provided on other contextualized transcripts “with a graphic representation of the grade distribution information and the median grade for the individual classes.”
Apparently, UNC thought that the format for which I earlier provided an example is less-than-“readable.” So, it decided that a “graphic” representation would be simpler for readers. But it then found that “such a graphic could be done but it would be very complicated and possibly could not be completed within ConnectCarolina (the system of record for student information).”
Take a moment to ponder the above statement by UNC: Its information technology department cannot figure out how to make a graphic representation of numerical data? Really?
How do we square this with the school’s Information Technology Services website, which trumpets in bold-face, capital letters its “RESEARCH COMPUTING HIGHLIGHTS 2016-2017 ACCOMPLISHMENTS? Although the committee report would have us believe that UNC’s IT department is still at the abacus level, take a look at the website and tell me that contextualized transcripts are a “technological challenge” beyond this group’s capacity.
It gets worse. UNC’s outreach efforts in attempting to implement the transcripts did not focus on how others outside the university would use the information. Instead, it documented feedback from graduate admissions groups at UNC alone. One admissions counselor offered the following tone-deaf comment: She expressed concern that the readers in her program “would not have the time to utilize the additional data provided by the contextualized transcript.”
Another “obstacle” that proved too onerous for UNC was deciding the question of to whom the new transcripts should apply. Says the committee: “One of the key objections of students when discussing the contextualized transcript was the perceived unfairness of having the new data start in a given year and, therefore, to start mid-career for some students.”
Again, this objection strains credulity. Has anyone in UNC’s leadership heard of “grandfathering in” new provisions? It’s done all the time, everywhere, but apparently not at UNC.
All that said, it is not simply UNC’s fault that it finds itself the victim of what is termed, the “Prisoner’s Dilemma.” Moreover, perhaps outsiders like myself cannot glean fully the real challenges faced by UNC. But try telling that to UNC Professor, Andrew Perrin, who has been working on developing contextualized transcripts since 2009. At the Faculty Council meeting where it was declared that UNC didn’t have the technological prowess to implement contextualized transcripts, Perrin expressed his disappointment: “Honestly, it never crossed my mind that by the spring of 2017 the contextualized transcript policy still wouldn’t have been implemented.”
In a stinging rebuke, he added, “For the record, I disagree with the EPC’s assessment, both of the report from last semester’s implementation committee (on which I served) and of the resources necessary to do this.”
But if the “technological challenges” are in fact capable of being overcome, as Perrin attests, what then explains the rise and fall of this noble project? According to a 2015 report in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Students have pushed back against the proposed changes, arguing that if other universities aren’t reflecting the same information on their transcripts, the contextualized scores could hurt their chances of getting into graduate school or landing jobs.”
Though skeptical, I cannot read into hearts and minds; so, I must take UNC at its word when it says that its IT department lacks the skill to establish a program other schools have already instituted. But, in this case, UNC might want to take a look at bolstering its IT capacities.