Making the grade: Potential grading scale change could take place as soon as 2012

By Jessica Sabbah

DeKALB | Questions still surround the possible adoption of a plus/minus grading system at NIU.

The Faculty Senate voted to recommend the implementation of the plus/minus grading system on Feb. 9. The proposal will now move to the Admissions Policies and Academic Standards Committee (APASC), Undergraduate Coordinating Council and the Graduate Council. The APASC will meet today at 3 p.m. Each committee could either approve, reject or request an amendment to the proposal. If approved, the University Council would have to approve the proposed grading system change for it to be adopted at NIU.

There are different forms of the plus/minus grading system. The proposed version for NIU caps the GPA at a 4.0 and includes an A+, counting as a 4.33 for calculation purposes, and does not include a D-.

The earliest the grading system change could occur would be fall of 2012, which would depend on whether the committees and the University Council choose to approve the proposal, when they approve it and if they could get the change in the catalogues in time before printing.

Alan Rosenbaum, Faculty Senate president and University Council executive secretary, said the plus/minus grading system would ideally get back to the University Council for a vote by the end of the semester.

Rosenbaum said a number of faculty have expressed a preference for a plus/minus system.

“The faculty are very often concerned that they don’t have enough leeway in grading,” he said.

Rosenbaum said the new grading scale would allow faculty to make more fine-tuned distinctions between grades.

With the proposed system, for example, a student with an 89 percent would be distinguished from a student who got an 81 percent.

How it would be implemented

Rosenbaum said if the system change occurs, he believes it will become the policy for all the students in the university beginning with whenever it is implemented

The system would not be retroactive.

“It won’t change it going backward,” he said.

If the grading system change does occur, the following semesters with the plus/minus system would just add onto students’ cumulative GPA, without going back and changing grades from previous semester when the system wasn’t in place.

The exact cost is still unknown; however, it isn’t expected to be substantial.

“At least at this point, cost would not be a factor that should be figured into the decision,” said Vice Provost Earl “Gip” Seaver. “We can make this happen and not break the university.”

MyNIU already has the capability to use a plus/minus system; however, the cap of a 4.0 GPA is where customizations may need to be made, Seaver said.

All questions would have to be answered before being voted on.

History of plus minus system at NIU

The plus/minus grading system is not exactly new to NIU.

The College of Law has used a form of the grading system since it became a part of NIU in 1979, said David Gaebler, associate dean at the College of Law. The system does not include an A+ or a D-.

Gaebler said he thought the grading system might have been implemented at the College of Law because of the importance of rank and class to law students.

“It allows us to make a finer distinction between the students and when you add that up over time you have a more discriminate ranking,” he said.

This also isn’t the first time a proposal to change the grading system has come up.

When it was brought up in 2005, it was ultimately rejected after student input suggested they didn’t want the change.

Seaver said some students, particularly those in honors, did not approve of the grading system change and spoke out.

Seaver said he thinks this time the Faculty Senate did a lot of research into the subject and polled faculty.

How it compares to other schools

Of the 11 Illinois public universities including NIU, three of those universities use some form of the plus/minus grading system.

Of the 12 Mid-American Conference Universities including NIU, nine of the institutions use the system.

Western Illinois University implemented a version of the grading system last fall for undergraduate coursework. Previously the university had used a straight letter grading scale.

Western Illinois University’s grading scale does not include an A+ but does include a D-.

Susan Dagit, associate director of WIU’s Office of the Registrar, said the process started about four to five years ago after being initiated by WIU’s Student Government Association.

Dagit said there was a lot of nervousness in the implementation of the new grading system.

“The most vocal concerns came from students who had like, a 4.0 and would possibly not be benefiting from this in any way,” she said. “There was nothing that was added to scheme higher than what they were currently earning.”

In order to transition, WIU had to change copy in its catalogue, change content on its website and revamp transcripts to include the new grading scheme.

Dagit said overall the grade distribution was pretty consistent comparatively from fall 2009 to fall 2010.

“I think in general there were more pluses than minuses given so I think it’s just more descriptive of the level of work a student has done and in most cases the expanded graded scheme is a positive thing for the students,” she said.

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has had a form of the plus/minus system since fall of 1996.

“Faculty wanted more fine-grained ability to distinguish student achievement,” said U of I Registrar Carol Malmgren in an e-mail. “Our student information system at the time had this ability for consideration.”

U of I includes both an A+ and a D-.

Each department at U of I has the ability to choose whether faculty use the plus/minus system in any given course, she said.