Wednesday, June 01, 2016


Only Her Registrar Knows For Sure...

My closest friend in high school, whom longtime readers know as High School Friend on Right Ocean, attended Johns Hopkins as an undergrad.  I remember him telling me at the time that first-semester grades there were hidden, and I remember being insanely jealous; my first semester at Williams reflected the very real culture shock of going from a large public high school to a highly selective college.  Getting a mulligan on that first semester would have helped tremendously.  I raised my game after the first semester, but by then, real damage had been done.  JHU’s policy struck me as enviably civilized.

Apparently, JHU isn’t alone in that policy.  The IHE piece mentions that Swarthmore does something similar.  Had I known that…

Some selective places handle the issue through rampant grade inflation, but Williams proved stubbornly immune to that.  (So did Swarthmore, if the grapevine is correct.)  

The article explains the rationale as allowing students from public high schools to get up to speed, and not to be penalized for where they started.  I recognize that.  The idea is that the academic rigor of selective colleges is so far beyond most public high schools that many students need some time to adjust.  They’re right; it is, and they do.

And then I thought, hmm.  Could a similar argument be made elsewhere?

The rationale at the selective places that hide grades is that it’s unrealistic to ignore the sudden intensification of rigor, relative to high school.  

That same dynamic could hold for students from struggling high schools encountering college anywhere.

Far too many of the interventions that well-funded places can support are just too expensive to replicate on community college budgets.  But this one isn’t.  It doesn’t require spending money.  It could be tested.

Admittedly, in this setting, the test would be a bit more complicated.  Students don’t only come here directly from high school.  Sometimes they show up with transfer credits.  Frequently they start with developmental courses, which are de facto hidden from GPA’s anyway.  And since more than half attend part-time, even defining “semester” in the context of “first semester” can be tricky.

But those could be engineered.  Hidden grades still exist, and could be used to determine “satisfactory academic progress” for financial aid purposes.  A grade-hiding experiment would have to apply to a cohort in a full degree program, as opposed to a short-term certificate program.  The students would have to know about it.  We’d need fairly careful tracking of results, and we’d need a way to explain to the students whose early grades aren’t hidden why theirs aren’t.  (That might be the hardest part.)  After several years, we could compare results in terms of subsequent GPA, graduation rates, transfer, and the like.

It’s entirely conceivable that we might find that students who have a chance to get up to speed do better in the long run.  Or not.  My point is, it’s testable at minimal cost.  It could actually be tried.

Does anyone out there know of any community colleges that have actually tried it?  Has this been done already?  If not, is there a good reason that it should remain only the privilege of (some) elite places?

I come across that article this morning and was hoping you'd address it here. The article goes on to mention that Johns Hopkins is ending this policy next year. A good experiment would be the only way to see clear results, but I have some concerns about such a policy.

1. Isn't this likely to make transfer more difficult? Given that many students transfer after a year, their transcripts will be meaningless when they apply to four-year schools. How can a potential receiving school really evaluate my transcript if my fall semester GPA is hidden and my spring semester courses are still in progress?

2. This would punish strong students, especially those who have one or two courses later on that lower their GPAs. Everyone has the one B or C that pulls down the GPA slightly; why should a straight-A/B student be punished because he or she got that C during the second or third semester instead of the first?

3. For many students, knowing that your grades are hidden does not provide the motivation to develop the necessary study habits that will last all of college and beyond. I know so many students who won't do the homework in classes where they know it doesn't count and the professor won't know if they don't do it (not because they're inherently lazy but because they have limited free time and will cut out what they think they can get away without). I'm sure many would start out their first semester with good intentions, but there is just too much temptation to develop a "I'll learn to do it the right way next semester" mentality.
The biggest problem I can see at access institutions with such a policy is how it would interact with financial aid and, in particular, the non-negligible number of students who disappear off the face of the earth as soon as their net aid is released onto their debit cards. Masking grades on transcripts, even if they were being tracked internally for financial aid eligibility, would make it much easier to replicate the scam at other area colleges and universities (or even nation-wide now students can enroll fully-online). Presumably Hopkins and Swarthmore don't have this problem since their admissions standards screen out financial aid scammers.

I'd much rather see either an option that students can take 1-2 first term courses pass-fail (with the choice declared during drop-add at the latest) or moving back the withdrawal-without-GPA penalty deadline; at many elite schools, that deadline can be as late as after 75-80% of the term has elapsed.
I did my undergrad at Johns Hopkins in the 80s and remember that policy. I entered with what was, at the time, considered to be a large number of AP credits and was classified as a second semester freshman. I was the only one in the dorm who had to worry about her GPA that first semester. I imagine that these days nearly every student who matriculates at Hopkins has at least a semester worth of AP/Dual enrollment credits if not more. That may have something to do with them ending the policy.
I've been known to do experiments in class (bad pun intended), and I also experiment with pedagogy. I've always found it interesting that the latter only requires IRB approval if it is intended for publication rather than "just" my attempt to continuously improve my classes. Would your college inform students of the risks they are taking? (And what about your one-and-done default rate? That is a risk to the college itself under evolving national policies.)

Much better to learn from comparable institutions with different policies. Perhaps you can get someone to track any changes in retention at Hopkins as well as the subjective and objective impressions of faculty at Hopkins regarding student engagement and performance on comparable exams. Is this change motivated by a student body that is less likely to be internally motivated to learn? Perhaps Hopkins is seeing a rush to the bottom of a grade-inflated minimum required to get an S instead of a U.

At the CC level, we effectively do that already with developmental classes. How much of the lack of effort comes from taking a class that literally "does not count" even though we issue letter grades? The experiment at the CC level is putting developmental students into college credit classes with some (non credit) additional support. That is the opposite of your suggestion. It isn't producing miracles, but it hasn't made things worse AFAICT. Our standards slipped when passing rates became a topic in evaluating new faculty for tenure.

Finally, I'll second everything CC Bio Prof wrote above. Students won't do the homework even IF they know the prof will be aware of their slackitude. Only points matter. (Report from faculty who use an on-line homework system that they can monitor but do not count it toward the course grade.) It also would have to have an opt-out clause, because we have students who need a specific GPA or minimum grade in specific courses (including ones taken as first-term freshmen) to transfer.
I suspect that at a CC any move in this direction would create a mess for transfer, since receiving institutions probably have a variety of policies around what they'll count for transfer credit that may not mesh well with pass/no pass systems.

I went to a SLAC and came in incredibly unprepared. (My high school had a graduating class of 23, and I was at the top of the class throughout high school, but was used to things going slowly and forgivingly enough that enough students would pass for the school to be able to offer the next class in the sequence.) My SLAC's solution to the GPA and transition issue was to let students withdraw from classes with a simple W (rather than a WP or WF) fairly late into the term. After it became clear that there was no way my high school habits and background preparation were going to have decent results in college, I ended up withdrawing from a couple of my classes my first term. (I'd also picked really ambitious classes because they "looked interesting", which did not help matters. Among other things, I was taking a "Greek 101" class that was actually a cross-listed upper division religious studies class in which we were translating The Gospel of John from Hellenstic Greek to English. As a non-Christian with no idea what it was supposed to say to help me make good guesses as I learned the Greek, it was not a class I had any business in to start with, but since it was technically a 1st year language class it had no official prerequisites.)

I played this game with basically everything I wasn't going to get at least a "B" in all the way through college, which meant I barely had enough credits to graduate at the end of 4 years but a good enough GPA for grad school. We were billed on the typical SLAC "all you can eat" model rather than per-credit, so I always took enough classes that I could drop about one a year and stay on track for graduation.

My GPA wouldn't have needed this game-playing if I'd been willing to stick to classes I actually needed to graduate with my major and normal elective choices, but I kept having the "looks interesting" problem where I'd get in over my head taking, say, a 400-level philosophy class that had nothing to do with my major and realize I was probably going to only get a C in it, which I couldn't afford if I wanted to keep the 3.0 to 3.5 GPA I needed to get into grad school in my totally unrelated major. (I went to grad school in computer science, and I consistently got A's and B's in those classes in undergrad. I just kept getting tempted by the classical "liberal arts" stuff, which I am apparently only at a B or C level in. I hate this entire system so much, since it discourages risk-taking and learning about things that challenge you in favor of taking classes where you can confirm and expand your grasp of stuff you're already pretty good at.)

I don't know if there's anything in there you could adapt, but letting students withdraw late in the game rather than fail or get low passing grades would game their GPAs in a way that might look "better" to transfer schools than pass/fail. I don't really know.
Caltech (my grad alma mate) does the same. Rice (my UG) didn't. I remember a certain mixture of jealousy and contempt for the Caltech freshmen because of it--I had excellent grades freshman year despite being unfocused, but my health greatly suffered for it.

4-and-a-half hours of sleep a night is a good way to destroy any mental stability.
I have to admit that I had not remembered this Johns Hopkins freshman year policy until the post jogged my memory last night. I was in the "did well" category, and what I (eventually) remembered was asking my professors to initial a page on which I had typed up my grades so I could use it while searching for a summer engineering internship.

I have not encountered this policy in the context of evaluating applicants for graduate admissions; the applicant transcripts I have seen (over 10+ years) all seem to have grades for all years.

A exception about listing grades that I have seen here at University of (insert state here) is that when undergraduates transfer in a course credit from elsewhere, such as a CC, their transcript shows a T for transfer and not the actual grade at the CC. The grade matters for whether or not the transfer credit is accepted (C or higher, even if a C- locally would be enough for the major), yet the grade elsewhere does not appear on the 4-year-school transcript. This puts me in the camp of being concerned about what this policy would do for students who transfer elsewhere.
HS lab partner of Dean Dad / HSFRO --

As far as I know, it is common not to list transfer grades on the transcript of the receiving institute's transcript nor to include those grades in GPA (at least when the CC is not in the same university system as the four-year). Hence, the often-stated application requirement is to transcripts from all schools attended.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?