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Central’s GPA Conversion Chart Doesn’t Add Up

If you’ve ever read the syllabus for any of your classes all the way through, you’ve probably noticed that somewhere in there is a class grade to GPA conversion; typically a chart, sometimes an equation.  What you may not have noticed is that not all conversions are the same, professor to professor. When I realized that, I thought that variance seemed a little weird, perhaps even kind of suspect. Oughtn’t there be some kind of consistency in grading policy, a level and reliable rubric by which to match the numerical percent grade earned in class with the grade point average which is communicated to other academic institutions for transfer or admissions into graduate and post-graduate programs?  Because I sure thought there should be. After initially spending some time bemoaning the tragic, inevitable decline of society into anarchy, I eventually decided to do some investigative digging.

I learned with a quick Google search that Seattle Central College does have an official letter grade to GPA conversion table.  My problem with using letter grades as a determinant is the innate lack of objective judgement that goes into such a vague scale.  What constitutes an A vs A+, vs a B-? It, again, depends on the instructor in question. This qualitative score leaves the door wide open for interpretation and emotional biases from a given grader, when there is plenty of opportunity for that already in a numerically-based grading process.  Going straight from a percent grade to final GPA score seemed, to me, at least somewhat less prone to subjectivity. My ire, quickened by the noted discrepancies in policy and fueled by my goal to transfer to UW in the fall, grew only more righteous with the discovery of such a useless guideline.

Seattle Central College’s letter grade to GPA conversion chart. Seriously, guys?

So, in an attempt to understand what, if any, governing philosophy was at play, I met with several faculty members: Kate Krieg, the Associate Dean of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences; Ricardo Leyva-Puebla, the Dean of Students; and Wendy Rockhill, the Dean of STEM and Business. I came away with, if nothing else, a much greater appreciation for the vast, churning depths of bureaucracy upon which our little ship of higher education blithely floats and an overwhelming sense of relief that I don’t have to deal with it on a daily basis.  These three brave souls have committed to navigating the byzantine nightmare of governmental red tape, legally binding contractual obligations, and academic egos, and they have my admiration and undying gratitude.

I met with Kate Krieg in October of this past year, in her office on the 4th floor of the Broadway-Edison building.  I outlined the scope of my query and she almost immediately pulled up the exact same letter grade to GPA conversion chart that I’d found.  I expressed my frustration with the lack of clear-cut distinctions said chart provided, with a brief, emotional digression into the wide variation I’d seen on my syllabi in the preceding quarters.

I found Krieg to be surprisingly sympathetic to my plight. She told me that I was not actually the first to notice or be concerned; this issue has, in fact, come up before. Unfortunately, this is where the aforementioned vast, churning bureaucracy comes in; the dense, thick layers of policy, procedure, and paperwork; the intractable behemoth of historical precedence; the immense inertia of a body politic that resists any change to momentum the way MRSA resists antibiotics; and the amalgamated egos of hundreds of tenured professors.  After a moment, I allowed as how I hadn’t actually considered the multitude of factors involved in enacting what had seemed to me to be such a simple standard.

It also turns out that there is a semi-official number grade to GPA conversion policy for the Humanities department;  Krieg kindly pulled up a copy for me. It’s been in place for about 4 years and falls under the category of strongly suggested.  Newer faculty are, apparently, using it reliably. Those with established grading policies are probably still using their own; there isn’t a formal census and Krieg couldn’t say for sure what the percentage of successful policy adoption was.  Nonetheless, it was a small amount of comfort to know that at least here, in this one microcosm, there existed order.

Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!

I left Krieg’s office bolstered by the hope that if it can be done in one department, surely such consistency can be attained in others, even if it may not be realistic to do it across departments, campuses, or regions.  Krieg also directed me to speak with Ricardo Leyva-Puebla, Dean of Students, and Wendy Rockhill, Dean of STEM-B. I was able to obtain a meeting with Leyva-Puebla first. His office is across the street from the BE and SAM buildings, in the Student Leadership building next to the MAC.

As with Krieg, I laid out my quest for Leyva-Puebla.  He mentioned that the University of Washington’s Student Association used to have a handbook detailing each professor’s style and policies, and that might be worth replicating at SCC; a sort of in-house Rate My Professor guidebook.  And apparently, syllabi for each class are stored in the library for students to research prior to taking a class from a given instructor, assuming that choices for a class were available in the first place.

He also talked about how each instructor has to meet academic standards set by the district for each class in terms of content, materials, and so on, and similarly there’s a process for determining how courses are created and approved; all of which is intended to create coherency across the three campuses.

Leyva-Puebla also brought up how the concept of “academic freedom” allows for each instructor to choose their own grading policies, their own rubrics, and their own GPA conversions, and that trying to impose a district-wide GPA policy would likely receive significant pushback from the teacher’s union.

In the end, he suggested that if I wanted to actually enact change in this regard, that I should consider how it would benefit the instructors to adopt a universal GPA conversion policy, as it would be easier to get them all to agree if it also made life easier for them as well. As much as I disliked the notion, it certainly makes sense; finding common ground is often the first step in successful negotiations.

It was a little while until I was able to meet with Wendy Rockhill, as she was out of the office for a few weeks.  She was, however, entirely worth the wait. We met in her office in the corner on the first floor of the SAM building main office.  Again, I outlined my concern and she, much like Krieg, was sympathetic and understanding. She said that there were both good reasons and bad reasons for the policy, or rather the lack thereof.

For the good: different classes utilize different coursework and a strict percent to GPA may not accurately reflect the functional learning of the student, and that the intended priority of instructors is to facilitate learning, which is what grades are supposed to reflect.  For example, she said, a teacher that uses a lot of group exercises might adjust their GPA conversion to account for the variable ability of the individuals of the group to produce equivalent work, and that it wouldn’t be fair to pin a higher performing student’s GPA on the work of a lower performing student.

Theoretically, the freedom of faculty to adjust their percent grade to GPA is for the benefit of the students. In reality, it doesn’t always work out that way, but it was the most cogent explanation I’d gotten so far, and the first one that didn’t make me want to rip my hair out.

Rockhill went on to acknowledge that the downside to such flexibility is that it looks weird and unfair to students, and the lack of explanation breeds suspicion, as it certainly did in me.  She said that greater transparency would remove a lot of the mystery of grades; additionally, she talked about how important she thinks it is for instructors to post updated grades so students can have an accurate idea of how well they are doing, along with what they need to be focusing on to improve.  She was adamant that a 4.0 should be an achievable grade in every class, and that having the ability to shift the relationship of percent grade to GPA allows for that attainability regardless of the content or style of the class. With that, she allowed that not every single instructor held that philosophy but that the vast majority did and that overall the results reflected the intent.

As much as I appreciate the diversity that Seattle Central is known for, diversity within a grading system is not quite what I was envisioning.  I think it is possible to institute a district-wide official GPA policy and conversion chart linked to a numerical percent grade, and I think that such a policy would benefit both students and instructors in terms of simplicity, clarity, and consistency.

There are certainly other higher learning institutions that do have such policies: University of North Carolina has multiple campuses and a single, simple GPA policy. Instructors are, in my opinion, entirely capable of adjusting their grading strategies to suit.  To me, everything else just seems like red tape and hand-waving and the extremely tired “We’ve always done it like this!” excuse. Obviously, there would be resistance to overcome, minds to change, policy wonks to convince, but ultimately I don’t think that there’s a truly compelling reason to NOT have a unified GPA conversion chart.

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