Hey Children, Mind Your A’s and B’s: The Weight of Grades at UC

According to data from a California Public Record Request, almost 77 percent of grades assigned during spring quarter of 2009 at UCI were either A’s or B’s. Of those, almost 38 percent were A’s.  C’s and D’s were hard to come by, with D’s comprising about 4 percent of grades assigned. The grade distribution data was based on almost 1600 courses taught and more than 70,000 grades assigned at UCI.

Letter grades are inherently ambiguous. To make sense of them the UC registrar has provided some description for each: students earning a D are performing poorly, C are meeting requirements, B are exceeding requirements and A are excelling. On a campus where only 4 percent of grades were for poor performance, it begs the question of whether or not UCI is facing an episode of grade inflation. Or could it be that the student body is outperforming standards?

Grade distribution at UCI doesn’t follow a traditional bell curve and is not unique when compared to other UC campuses. Most campuses assigned far more As and Bs, with a high of 83% at University of California, Los Angeles (47 percent A’s) and a low of 66 percent at University of California, Riverside (28 percent A’s).  UCI fell in the middle, with numbers comparable to UCSD, UCSB and UCD. Not all UCs were completely involved, however; data could not be obtained for University of California, Berkley, University of California, Santa Cruz and University of California, Merced.

There appears to be some relationship between entrance requirements at a UC campus, mean SAT scores and GPA, and grade distribution; UC campuses with more rigorous entrance requirements tended to administer higher grades.

Even at UCI, as admission requirements have become more competitive, more A’s and B’s have been given out in recent years. In Fall of 2000, almost 7 percent fewer A’s and B’s were given out compared to Spring 2009. At the same time, the mean GPA of incoming freshmen rose from 3.69 to 3.82, while mean SAT scores rose a modest eight points.

According to Sharon Salinger, UCI Dean of Undergraduate Education, the trend is not surpriing. Campuses like UCI that accept qualified students will assign higher grades, because more students will meet and exceed expectations.

“It’s not grade inflation if a faculty member sets a standard and a lot of students earn A’s and B’s. A normal distribution assumes a random array of students and I don’t believe UCI has a random array of students.  At UCI, we get really smart students who excelled at high school.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they continue to perform well,” Salinger said.

Within UCI, grade distribution differed substantially among academic departments. For example, the Dance department handed out 97 percent A’s and B’s (73 percent A’s), the Political Science department handed out 82 percent A’s and B’s (38 percent A’s), and the Chemistry department handed out 66 percent A’s and B’s (25 percent A’s).  Overall, sciences and engineering had depreciated grades compared to social sciences.

However, according to data from the UCI Office of Institutional Research, freshman students entering sciences are as academically qualified as those in the social sciences — in fact, freshmen entering the Schools of Engineering and Physical Sciences have mean high school GPAs and mean math and verbal SAT scores higher than their counterparts in the School of Social Science.

Academic departments don’t set grade policies. Faculty members determine their own policies and consider the prerogative part of their academic freedom. Since standards for a course are determined by the faculty member teaching it, some critics blame the disparity in grades an outcome of reduced standards. Others put more emphasis on what different courses attempt to test.

Some courses are more conducive to grade appreciation not because the standards are reduced, but because the course tests reflection, through essays and discussion, not absorption, through fact based, multiple choice questions.

William Schonfeld, UCI Political Science Professor, points out that this is the major reason why grades are appreciated in some non-science courses.

“It’s not that the standards are tougher in the sciences, it’s that 98 percent of the time there can be no disagreement over the right answer.  Student and faculty don’t disagree on rightfulness of the answer. In an essay question, there are thousands of good answers, so there is more room for students to fight for grades. Many faculty members pull up their grades to reduce fighting. The moment there can be disagreement you start to have more grade inflation,” Schonfeld said.

Another reason grades may not be equitable between schools is that UCI doesn’t have a campus-wide add/drop policy; rather, add/drop policies are determined by schools. Some schools set the deadlines at the end of week two, others by week 6, and some as late as week 10.  If underachieving students can drop as late as week 10, grade distribution will appear more lenient than it really is. Schools that have early drop policies will see depreciated grades, since underachieving students are compelled to stay in.

Regardless of reasons why unequal grade distribution exists, many engineering and science majors feel the situation is unfair.

“I don’t like it,” said Arfan Sinaki, fourth-year engineering major. “I put in twice the work as some of my friends majoring elsewhere, and yet, I have and will graduate with a lower GPA. If there was a more even playing field, the work I put in would be better recognized.”

The problem gets compounded because many professional schools don’t differentiate between majors. At such institutions, one’s GPA, not one’s major, determines acceptance and rejection.

“Many of my friends are ex-engineers,” Erfan said. “They began as engineers, enjoy it but end up moving elsewhere after their GPAs take a hit. Most switch into a social science based major to recover their grades for professional school. At this point, I’m contemplating doing the same.”

Although there are many other factors that influence the decision to switch major, GPA does seem to play a role and may help explain why so many students transfer out of sciences and very few transfer in.  Almost 50 percent of the freshmen who matriculated in the Schools of Engineering and Biology in 2000 ended up leaving those majors by their fourth year. The largest portion, almost 14 percent, migrated to the School of Social Science. However, this trend isn’t seen in reverse. In that four-year span, only 0.3 percent of freshmen in the School of Social Science transferred into the School of Engineering and only 1 percent into the School of Biology. In fact, from 2000-2004, while most sciences saw a net migration out, the school of Social Science saw a huge migration of students into the major and almost doubled its student body.
It should be noted the data paints only a general picture, and isn’t conclusive. Many other variables are at play. More information is required to determine the presence and degree of grade inflation at UCI.