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Thursday, February 17, 2000
Houston, Texas
Volume 65, Issue 97

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Your fate depends on the magical GPA

Steve Forsberg

What's in a grade? Besides your academic eligibility, I mean. What the heck do those little letters measure, if anything, and is there anything that can be done to end their tyranny? Most people do not like to see themselves reduced to a number, but let's face it, that's what happens.

What does this magical number, your grade point average, mean anyway? Well, the problem is that it could mean a number of things. Professors are ever alert for any signs of conformity, which they fear makes them look like people with "regular" jobs. So they naturally don't agree on how grades should be assigned.

Some professors feel that a grade is a measure of how well you learned the material in class. Thus, if you can recite most of what you've been lectured, you get an A. If everyone shows up for class and does well, there is no reason that almost everyone shouldn't get an A.

Others, however, have a more Darwinian bent and feel that the purpose of a grading system is to rank those within a class against one another. Thus, even if everyone in the class does pretty well, only the "best" of them will get the A. No matter how well the class does as a whole, for example, only three A grades will be assigned. Period.

Of course, students tend to like the first type of professor a lot better than the second. The second type of professor, however, might argue that he is better preparing you for the hard realities of life. It doesn't matter how good you are, only how much better you are than your competition.

But your college transcript doesn't say what type of methodology your professors are using. All of the numerous variables of grade assignment are refined into one possibly misleading statistic: your GPA. And let's face it, that number can be pretty darn important.

Of course, there are other numerical ratings you have to put up with during college career. But in the case of tests like the ACT, SAT, LSAT or GRE, at least everyone is playing off the same scorecard, so to speak. Their methods of assignment are clearly explained and used uniformly. Not so with college course grades, however. Every professor you meet might have his or her own "secret recipe" for cooking up the end-of-term grade reports.

The problem, of course, is that these recipes are secret. The people looking at your application, be it for grad school or a for job, really don't have the foggiest notion of how those grades were precisely assigned. Did you load up on classes from Professor Easygoing, who feels that everyone should get an A unless they work hard to deserve less? Or were you unfortunate to get a line of courses from Professor Noway, who grumbles that he didn't get an A in the course when he was an undergrad, and by god none of his students will either.

Certainly, fear of lowering their GPA helps keep students from taking challenging classes. Having a C in calculus, for example, means you know a lot more calculus than someone who never took the class. But if you are a humanities student trying to get into a good grad school, you are probably better off sloughing with an A in the "math without math" alternative course.

What about a solution? Perhaps the University should adopt a "weighted" GPA scale like many high schools have. Then you could have people walking around bragging about getting a 4.3 on a 4.0 scale. Of course, you'd have to decide which classes are hard and which are easy.

I propose that the deans of the colleges convene a faculty-wide meeting, and that they decide which of their classes warrant a "hard" rating and which an "easy." No, I don't think it would work. But it sure as heck would be entertaining.

Forsberg, a senior history major, 
can be reached at sjforsbe@bayou.uh.edu.

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