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Making the precise grade

Published Oct. 6, 2005

USF sophomore Lisa Bahnsen wants to change her grades, and she has teamed up with other students who want to change theirs, too.

Bahnsen is leading an effort to have pluses and minuses added to the current system of letter grades.

"It'll give students a better idea of how they're actually doing, and it will help people who want to go to graduate schools," she said.

Advocates of the change claim that most prestigious undergraduate institutions and many graduate schools use the plus-minus system. Its purported benefits include greater accuracy in grading individual students and greater latitude to show differences in performance within groups of students.

"There are times when it (plus-minus) helps make a better differentiation between students who are on the border," said Kofi Glover, a professor in the African Studies department.

But James Eison, director of USF's Center For Teaching Enhancement, says that nobody is looking at the research on the subject.

"There is no research that shows it (plus-minus grading) would benefit students. But there are lots of studies about grades as measures of achievement and about student orientation toward learning versus grades."

Eison, co-author of the book, Making Sense of College Grades, believes that grades have become an overwhelming preoccupation for many students. The addition of plus-minus won't make the grading system more useful or accurate, he says, but will continue to keep the real issue _ learning _ in the background.

"For some students and parents, grades have become central. For some parents, GPA is sort of like a Dow Jones indicator of how the kids are doing," he said.

But according to Eison's research, GPA is not an accurate predictor of post-college success. Nor is it an entree into the job market. Employers are more likely to look at personality and job experience when hiring.

USF junior Mary Estes says she once feared her grades would keep her from succeeding after college.

"When I was a freshman I worried about grades a lot," she said. "I thought, "Oh no. If I don't get A's and B's I'll never get a job and I'll end up on the street and starve.' But I found it too stressful to worry about it too much."

Estes, who is majoring in technical writing, does not favor the proposed grading changes.

But finance major Rob Eckard thinks plus-minus grading is a good idea.

"It would separate students who had a big difference in points," he said. "I'd like there to be a bigger difference between a student who had a 70 and a student who had an 89. There should be more equity in grading."