CHAPEL HILL – At the end of the spring semester, the Faculty Council at UNC-Chapel Hill considered and narrowly defeated a policy that would change the way the grading system works. The proposed Achievement Index (AI) is a number similar to the typical grade-point average (GPA) but it would be used to determine class rank and degrees with distinction.
The index is a way of combating grade inflation and would be a trend-setting step if adopted. The proposal to adopt AI at UNC originated with the Educational Policy Committee of the Faculty Council.
“There has been a long-standing faculty discussion on grade inflation and an exploration of possible solutions,” said Educational Policy Committee member Beverly Foster. “The committee’s intent was to get an issue of concern to many — and one possible approach — on the table and out for discussion.”
In 2000, a report documented the rise in grades over time. An update in 2004, according to the News & Observer, showed that about 41 percent of all undergraduate grades were As, compared with 39 percent that were Bs.
The AI is calculated through a more complex process than GPA. The AI starts with a student’s average grade but modifies it in the light of classmates’ grades in mutual classes and classmate’' grades in their other classes. The aim is to come up with a figure that reflects the difficulty of the courses each student takes.
The campus-wide average AI for every semester is equal to the campus-wide average GPA for that semester. The AI sorts out students differently, however, than the GPA, because each student’s AI depends on the competitiveness of the classes he or she takes. For every gain in AI one student makes, some other student must suffer a proportional loss in AI.
Student leaders are hailing the Faculty Council defeat of the Achievement Index as a victory for the student body. In order to combat the AI, a group of concerned students calling themselves the AI Task Force contacted voting members of the Faculty Council, held a teach-in to educate students, and headed up publicity efforts around campus. The group was co-chaired by sophomores Danny Randolph and Mike Radionchenko.
In anticipation of the Faculty Council vote, Student Congress heard a resolution against AI that passed unanimously; twelve representatives were listed on the resolution as co-sponsors. Student Body President Eve Carson met with faculty and administrators in the week prior to the Faculty Council’s meeting. Carson presented student concerns to the assembled Council before the vote was held.
A group of UNC students also petitioned the Faculty Council to vote against the resolution to adopt the Achievement Index. They did so on the grounds that AI is less transparent than GPA and creates unneeded competitiveness between students. The petitioners pointed out that there is no student demand for a GPA alternative, saying that AI seems to be a “solution in search of a problem.” The petitioners collected 797 signatures before the Faculty Council vote.
A number of faculty members joined with students in advocating against AI, including 2003-2006 Faculty Council Chairwoman Judith Wegner. Some professors claimed AI would undermine their academic freedom and autonomy to assign grades in their own classes.
Proponents of implementing an achievement index argue that it is a more valid measure of achievement. The AI neutralizes grade inflation because grades under the AI are a relative measure between students, not a measure of mastery of material by individual students – the goal, but apparently not the result, of the GPA. AI measures relative performance more accurately than GPA.
To score high on the AI, students must seek out challenging classes and majors with high-performing students rather than easy classes that guarantee an “A.” In addition, using AI discourages students from giving help to others that would constitute a violation of the Honor Code (e. g., copying assignments). UNC-CH would have been the first campus in the country to use the system, supporters of the plan said.
Opponents of AI, including many current UNC students, claim that AI has more costs than benefits. They claim that use of AI would create undue competition between students and discourage group work. Using AI would also change how students choose classes by encouraging them to take harder classes or one in which they already know the material. They also point out that AI has never been tested, and was rejected by Duke University when Duke’s Arts and Sciences [Faculty] Council considered it in 1997.
Valen Johnson, who developed the index, was an associate professor of statistics at Duke during Duke’s Achievement Index debate. Johnson said the vote there followed divisional lines. Most social-science and humanities professors voted against the index, he said, and most of those in the “hard” sciences voted for it. Johnson is now a professor and deputy chairman of the department of biostatics at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Johnson has written extensively on the problem of grade inflation, including a book called Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education, published in 2002.
In an online forum, Richard Weinberg, a member of the UNC Faculty Council and professor of cell and development biology, stated, “I've been startled by the intensity of the controversy . . . The AI is less transparent, but more valid than GPA. I'm puzzled by the notion that there is something wrong with ranking and competition. Surely that lies at the core of grading? . . . Why should a GPA exist in the first place, if not as a form of evaluation and ranking?”
Issues surrounding the AI decision are likely to return next semester, when faculty will seek another way to combat grade inflation on campus. Student body president Eve Carson is hopeful about an alternative to AI. “I believe that there are more appropriate and truly more fair measures out there.”