Monday, April 23, 2012

 

Ask the Administrator: Changing Grades

A regular correspondent writes:

My state wants cc administators to be able to change grades if faculty demonstrate "error" or "unfairness".  This is in a context where some of my colleagues are suspended because students complained that they "embarrassed me in front if the class" or "were mean".   To be fair this information comes to me via the union so maybe that's their spin. All the same I don't know if the admin has our back.  My fear is the students feel empowered to complain and if they get results they'll just do it more and more.
I'd be ok with colleagues judging my grading, but honestly what does an administrator know about grading the specialized field I teach in?  They could catch clerical errors in my spreadsheet, but if that was the issue I'd obviously change the grade (who wouldn't?).  The only possible way they could judge is if I made an insanely specific metric for all student work. I know metrics are something admins like anyway, but if my skill set could be reduced to a metric they could hire anyone to do my job.
Ultimately if my grades can be reversed by someone not qualified in my field, and students are getting traction getting profs suspended and grades changed I'll just have an incentive to give As and Bs.


My college uses a standard similar to that now.  Happily, it has not resulted in any of the doomsday scenarios you suggest, although your mileage may vary.

Interpretation is the key.  “Error” here is taken to refer to computation or data entry mistakes.  The reason that administrators need the ability to use that is that sometimes faculty quit or become otherwise unavailable (for health reasons, say) and can’t be reached to make the change.  If the professor is the only one capable of changing a grade, and the professor can’t be reached, then the grade is stuck.  That hardly seems fair to the student.  Designating someone with the authority to correct a mistake if the professor can’t be reached is just good contingency planning.

“Unfairness” -- we use a similar term -- is interpreted here to mean “discrimination.”  If a different standard was applied to one set of students than to the rest, then there’s a reason to make a change.  That’s different from being tough across the board, or passing judgment on the substance of what’s being done.  In practice, “unfairness” might apply to a professor who simply refused to accommodate a student with a documented disability.  

While it’s true that someone could apply more elastic interpretations to those terms -- particularly “unfairness” -- it’s almost certainly better to have rules than not to have rules.  In the absence of rules, one of two things will happen.  Either grades will never get changed -- and students will simply be stuck with whatever mistakes were made -- or they’ll get changed on a case-by-case basis, which virtually guarantees inconsistency.  I can attest that from this side of the desk, it’s much easier to turn away a student who complains that professor so-and-so was “unfair” when all she can muster in support of that is a general sense of being underappreciated.  

My suggestion would be to try to clarify -- preferably in writing -- the meanings of the terms.  

If the real issue is mistrust of the administration, you might want to propose some sort of faculty committee charged with passing judgment on grade appeals.  Then that committee could use the clarified standards as its basis for judgment.  You’d still have the issue of non-experts passing judgment, since nobody is an expert in every field, but the standards as interpreted here don’t require expertise.  

I fully agree that having grades changed just to keep students happy is both unethical and profoundly demoralized.  But the alternative is not to just throw out grade changes altogether.  It’s to bring some consistency to the process.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Have you seen a better way to handle grade changes when the original professor can’t be reached?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Comments:
Our answer is "policy", but it only excludes the professor or instructor at the first level of appeal when that person cannot be contacted -- pretty much as you describe. That is why all adjuncts leave a copy of their grade book and their final exams when they leave at the end of the semester, and why the rest of us keep them in file cabinets just in case we die unexpectedly.

However, it isn't clear to me that the writer was talking about what you and I are talking about. You didn't address the local atmosphere: This is in a context where some of my colleagues are suspended because students complained that they "embarrassed me in front if the class" or "were mean". If "were mean" is just another term for "has standards", you might as well print the diplomas as soon as a student gets accepted.

Of course, one of the problems here is (as you wrote recently) that only a few people know if there was any sworn testimony or substantive evidence presented to support those claims. Everything else, including what the writer stated, is hearsay.
 
Does your school have a formal grade grievance process? If so, most such processes include a point where an administrator (above the instructor or department level) is authorized to change a student's grade, even without the instructor's approval - if the student wins the grade grievance/appeal.

If such a process already exists, then you do not need anything new to be in compliance. If it doesn't exist, it should, and your union should be proactive and offer to help the administration draft a sensible policy. There are many examples out there to draw from (check student conduct codes from other schools).

...putting on my union rep hat...
If the union is not doing anything to push back against the disciplinary actions, there are two possibilities. One is that you have a weak union. Another is that the union basically agrees with the allegations against these instructors. (Actually, a third possibility is that the union is taking action or preparing to do so, but that you aren't aware of it - which they should tell you, if you are a member and you ask bluntly.)
 
" In practice, “unfairness” might apply to a professor who simply refused to accommodate a student with a documented disability. "

I'm curious as to what this might mean, as I am not an educator. I take it that "documented disability" is not something obvious, like blindness or deafness, but some sort of learning disability? If a student is dyslexic, for example, is the accommodation simply more time for taking tests? Or are more substantive allowances now required as well? Does someone with a documented disability need to learn less to get the same grade as a "normal" student?
 
Edmund--In most places now, there's someone (at my institution) in Student Services who works with students with disabilities. Our policy, which is drawn from US Dept of Ed standards, is that students with disabilities (confirmed by evidence presented to the Student Services office--not to the faculty member--must be afforded "resaonable accomodation" in such things as test-taking, having a note-taker in class, being allowed to record lectures, and so on. The purpose of this is to standardize treatment of students and to make sure that they have a fair shot at things.


My institution also has a formal grade appeal/grade change process, spelled out in considerable detail (although I cann't find an on-line version of it. Essentially:

1. The student must begin by discussing the issue with the instructor, if the instructor is available.

2. If the issue is not resolved the student may appeal to the department chair/dean (whichever is applicable; some Schools don't have department chairs). At this point, the relevant administrator may appoint a faculty committee to review the issues and make a recommendation.

3. If this does not resolve the issue, the student may appeal to the chief academic officer, who may also appoint a faculty committee for advice.

I've served on a faculty committee that reviewed a grade appeal, and it was a load of fun.

But this process works pretty well.
 
My response to Edmund's question was incomplete. It's time/space/accomodation to do the work; it's not a change in learning expectations or grading standards. At least not here.
 
Our policy is basically identical to the one doc described. I've also served on a grade appeal committee. It was also loads of fun.

In short, it works here too.
 
Speaking of grade appeals, did you read the "Quick Take" in IHE today about NCAA sanctions against Kean University? The part where the FORMER VPAA ordered the Asst VPAA to change a grade so a student would be eligible to play basketball the next day? The sordid details are on pages 7 to 9 of the report.
 
As front-line student services staff at a large community college in the Midwest, I get this kind of issue from students all the time. Many of our instructors are adjunct and few reply to student inquiries about grades in the timely fashion the students would like (read as: instantaneously).

The policy at my institution is a fairly clean one that I'm a fan of. If a student wants to appeal to get a "W" for a course due to some extenuating circumstance or dissatisfaction with a grade, that's done through the administration side. If a student wants a grade changed, that's entirely up to the instructor. Failing that, it goes up the chain of command WITHIN the academic department, with the dean/chair of that department having final say.

I'm inclined to agree with the person who posed the original question. Few on the admin side has the necessary expertise in a given subject area to make a grading decision that overrides a faculty member's judgement. If something needs to be appealed for a grade, it should stay within the faculty of a department. Higher Ed needs a balance of power. We can't neuter our faculty in favor of administrators for the sake of making nice with an upset student, regardless of how legitimate a student's issue may be. Faculty are the subject area experts, let them decide grades.
 
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