Rise of the GPA

From a young age we are indoctrinated with formal grading practices, and for that reason it is quite impossible to imagine a world without grades. Sometimes grades serve as motivation to do well in school, other times they become padlocks on our futures or completely convolute the learning process. But as familiar as grades have become, they haven’t always been around.

Standardized grading practices as we know them are something of a modern phenomenon and did not become implemented until the 19th century. Prior to this, educational institutions varied in how they measured student performance.
For example, Ezra Stiles, president of Yale University in the 18th century, made attempts to divide students into four ranks or grades: quality, best, worse and worst.

In the 19th century, Yale University implemented a more formal system reminiscent of the modern grade point average (GPA). The university kept what was called a “Book of Averages,” in which an average of each student’s grades was recorded on a four-point scale — not unlike the modern GPA system.

At that time, different universities and colleges used varying numerical systems to evaluate students. Some like Yale used four-point scales, while others like Harvard University preferred 20-point and 100-point scales. Some university continued to use the simple pass/fail system of grading.

It was only in 1897 at Mount Holyoke College, a liberal arts college for women, that letter grades began to be used to evaluate and reflect student performance. The college correlated letter grades with percentages, just as modern grading systems do.

Although Mount Holyoke College’s grading model resembled the modern grading systems, one rather unpleasant letter had yet to make its debut — the nefarious letter F. In Mount Holyoke’s letter grade scheme, the lowest passing grade was a 75 or D, and anything below was an E.

Over time this system evolved into the modern grading system implemented in universities around the world. Converting a percentage to a letter grade and then a letter grade into an evaluation on a four-point scale allows student evaluations to be viewed comparatively — but even so this system can vary from university to university as there is no real standardization.

In a 2000 article, William D. Cohen, a professor of biology at Hunter College, discussed how the GPA often does not provide a clear reflection of a student’s ability.

Cohen’s article is littered with examples of how a small difference in percentage can result in a huge difference in GPA due to all the conversions.

According to Cohen, this results in stressed and worried students, and professors trying to curtail class results to minimize borderline grades — enter the bell curve and grade inflation.

“Why begin the grading process with an accurate numerical evaluation, convert it to a less accurate letter grade, and back again to a still less accurate number? With its potential for producing distortion and unnecessary agonizing, the GPA should be discarded and the [percentage per performance] PPC, or something better, should take its place,” wrote Cohen.

Cohen makes a very valid point. Why take an accurate numerical evaluation and distort it? Cohen’s analysis of the GPA system illustrates it is not a fair reflection of a student’s performance. The GPA system doesn’t really allow for mistakes or second chances. One bad term can significantly damage an otherwise outstanding GPA and academic career.

The GPA system becomes counterproductive to learning in a sense, because the focus is shifted from learning to achieving and maintaining a high GPA.

The phenomenon of “bird courses” — courses deemed easy through reputation, taken in the hopes of boosting one’s GPA — serve as a testament to this GPA driven education. If students are in university to learn because they choose to attend, why are some taking courses to boost their GPA?

Is the GPA system conducive to learning, or is it convoluting the learning process — undermining actually learning in favour of learning to obtain a grade? Does this in turn diminish the worth of a degree? Turning a degree into a piece of paper, students jumped through hoops to obtain?