The Editorial Board: A discussion on the merits of going “gradeless”


Editor’s Note: The Editorial Board of the Cento is composed of members of the staff and does not reflect the opinions of any one individual on the staff. The Editorial Board represents the voice of the Cento.

If you ask any Centre student, “What makes Centre, Centre?” you would get a slew of different answers. You would most likely get answers about the tight-knit community on campus, the close relationships students foster with their professors, or any other factor that can be found on an admissions pamphlet.

Now change the context. If you were to ask any Centre student, “What makes Centre, Centre?” as a possible future employer or graduate school, you can almost be sure that he or she will talk about the rigorous academics.

High academic standards, challenging assignments, and a strenuous workload are without a doubt one of the most distinct aspects of Centre College.

In fact, if you are ever lucky enough to stumble upon an outsider who has actually heard of Centre, the first thing they will probably bring up is the academic challenge.

We, as members of the Centre community, take pride in this fact. Especially as students, when we walk across the stage at graduation, we want the world to know exactly what it took to get that degree. Although the nation may know of our high academic reputation and our ever-rising rankings, only Centre students truly know the cost of it all.

Since success at Centre does not come without hard work; students quickly learn that in order to succeed, sacrifices will have to be made. Like other schools, Centre students study into the wee hours of the night, consume too much caffeine, pull all-nighters, and stress about our schoolwork.

Yet, the closer you examine Centre students, the sooner you will see the difference between Centre and other schools. The pressure to do well can be become almost manic, causing students to push themselves to, or past, their breaking points and create an obsessive need to get the “right” grades.

The evidence is everywhere. Stroll into the campus at 1 a.m. and you’re guaranteed to see it full of students frantically studying for an exam, working through a homework problem, or trying to find the perfect thesis for their paper. Walk into breakfast at Cowan on any given morning and the majority of students are hunched over their table studying, because time spent enjoying a meal is time wasted not working.

Even within Parson’s, the majority of counseling issues stem from academic worries or problems. Look around campus and you’ll see students sacrificing mental health for an education. But how much of an education are students retaining?

One doesn’t have to be an expert in cognition to know that lack of sleep and high stress levels do not produce a healthy equation for learning and retention of information.

But are students really working for the sake of learning, or are they working for the sake of the grade? It is this very question that has sparked a recent debate within a group of the faculty on campus.

Of course for the faculty, it is their wish that each one of their students comes away from a class recalling the information learned rather than the grade earned, but this is not always the case. This group of faculty is starting to debate if a plausible solution could be to change the very grading system itself.

The current conversation, then, is centered on the idea of going “gradeless.” Several other schools across the country have recently adopted this practice of grading students without grades, and it could be just what Centre needs.

In this type of system professors do not submit a letter grade to evaluate a student’s performance, but rather a letter of evaluation. This letter could encompass any aspects of the student’s performance that the professor chose: attendance, participation, knowledge of the material, use of the material, etc. So by the time that a student graduates with a degree, they will not have a transcript but a portfolio of evaluations.

However, the logistics of a system like this are not easy to solidify and that’s where the conversation seems to be at a standstill. If the school moved to an evaluation-based system, there would have to be some standard of evaluations that professors would have to follow.

Without some sort of general standard, evaluations would not be of use to students or to future employers; there would be no way to tell what a comment of “brilliant” or “good” means in the context of the many different professors that would be submitting evaluations.

Setting some kind of standard on evaluations, however, is a slippery slope. How would the college set a standard for evaluation that would create a semi-level playing field between disciplines and between professors?

Qualitative evaluations are, by nature, at least somewhat subjective, so setting any sort of usable metric is a huge task. And if too rigid a metric is set, is it not essentially the same as having a normal grading scale?

Additionally, while some other colleges and universities have moved to a similar idea of “gradeless” grading, none of Centre’s direct competitors have done so. Without using a similar evaluation system as Centre’s competitors, the way that employers and graduate schools compare Centre students to others might shift.

Will employers and recruiters take the leap and read an evaluation portfolio as equal to a grade point average, or will they be more comfortable working with the scale they have always used?

Finally, the idea of going “gradeless” hinges on one fundamental point: it assumes that Centre students will self-motivate for the sake of learning. While not worrying about grades would doubtless be better for students’ collective mental health, without a serious motivator like a letter grade to work for at the end of term, there is no real guarantee that Centre students will put in the effort for every course. In an ideal world, students would be able to self-motivate; realistically, however, this is not true of every student that enters the doors of Crounse Hall.

With all of these factors, the faculty has found themselves at a stand-still, caught in between seemingly insurmountable problems on both sides of the issue. This is an issue, however, that the student body should care about and should discuss heavily. It is, after all, a debate about the standard by which all Centre students will be judged.

The Cento advocates a serious conversation between the administration, faculty, and students about the idea of going “gradeless” and any merits of such a shift. The Cento encourages such a discourse, whether that be in the form of a forum or a debate, and would be glad to help facilitate any such discussion.



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