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.