Refined grading is bad for RIT and its students. To justify a change to a plus-minus grading system, there should be clear benefits that outweigh the negatives. Unfortunately, the positives, if there are any, pale in comparison to the negatives. RIT has changed a lot since the decision was made to implement plus-minus grading and it is past time to challenge this implementation.

Working for the Grade

According to the President’s page on the RIT website, RIT exists to enhance education for students, place students in good careers and advance societal knowledge. Everything the university does should be measured against that purpose.

RIT should be focused on providing an environment for improving skills, understanding concepts and preparing for careers. Students should be focused on working with RIT toward those goals. Focusing on grades distracts students from working toward their real priorities. The moment a student starts doing work for the grade and not for the value of the class, the entire institution has failed. At those moments, RIT has created an environment where career preparation is secondary to playing the grade game, demoting education to an afterthought.

Refined grading will intensify this problem because there will always be pressure to achieve a slightly better grade. The student’s argument will be, “Why should I be mediocre when I could be mediocre+?” It will no longer be acceptable to simply learn and understand material, it will be necessary to do so without making any missteps along the way. Ultimately, the new system will create a paralyzing environment of students hyper-focused on grading and distracted from learning.

Grades vs. Education

It’s easy to confuse education and grades, but that is a serious error. Grades may have their place in supporting the goals of the university but it is important that they are not the end goal. The grade itself does not confer any benefit to employers, society or individual learning. Grades do not tell you about a student’s knowledge of the subject, because performance on tests does not necessarily correlate with real-world performance. All grades can really tell you is if a student has been successful in the undefined combination of motivation, knowledge and grade grubbing that a teacher wanted to see. The meaning of a grade is so unclear to begin with, and the margin of error so wide, that adding refined measures like a plus-minus grading system does not add any meaning.

When talking about refined grading, supporters like to point out that plus-minus grading is more accurate. This assertion reflects a misunderstanding of accuracy and precision. Accuracy is about how closely a measurement agrees with the reality of what is being measured. Precision is about how many decimal places you record.  The current grading scheme offers more than enough nuance to show good, great and gradations of bad. The accuracy of grading is so poor that any added precision is meaningless. Implementing refined grading is like adding 1/10 degree increments to a thermometer with a 5-degree margin of error: silly.

On the other hand, education confers students with the knowledge they need to make contributions to their employers, their communities and themselves. Education is the critical component needed to make the most of yourself and succeed in becoming what you want to be. A GPA only serves you when you are looking for your first job. An education shapes you and benefits you for a lifetime. Refined grading would incentivize students to prioritize their GPA over their education.

If it isn’t enough that refined grading is bad for education, the fact that the majority of RIT students dislike the system should be. Data from my recent survey of online RIT students revealed that less than a quarter of 288 respondents were in favor of implementing refined grading. While this was a small sample, it is clear that larger surveys would likely support my assertions.

With all of the pitfalls and consequences of refined grading in mind, it is difficult to understand why RIT has pushed for the change. Perhaps the administration is pleased with the fact that refined grading will reduce most students’ GPAs. Perhaps it is a good thing that some students will be able to claim their 0.3 superiority over classmates. Perhaps it will be slightly more comfortable reverting to the high school way of doing things. Just ask yourself this: Will these benefits matter when you look back 20 years from now and realize that you traded a $182,000 education for a slightly prettier GPA?