Letter: grading system failing

March 20, 2013

The Daily Cardinal

Problems with the grading done by TAs go well beyond the “inconsistencies” discussed in Eli Bovarnick’s Opinion March 21 column, “TA grading system inherently flawed.” Even more important is how accurately the grades TAs give measure what their students learned.

Consider the grading in TA-taught sections of Comm A, English 101. This course was one of several established in 1994 in response to concerns expressed by faculty members about the inability of undergraduate students to write effective prose. Unless exempted, freshmen take this course in their first year and follow it with a second course, Comm B. The Comm A course is supervised by the English Department faculty and designed to help students become more effective writers.

In Fall 2012, the English Department offered 52 sections of Comm A to accommodate just over 800 students. The overall GPA in the course was 3.773. The average grade in seven sections was 4.0. The average in the lowest section was 3.316. Does this gap reflect differences in student performance or differences in the standards applied by TA’s teaching these sections?

What explains the surprising rise in the overall GPA in Comm A from 3.555 in Fall 2007 to 3.773 in Fall 2012? Has teaching in Comm A improved that much? Have students worked harder to improve their writing? Are entering Comm A students in Fall 2012 already better writers, and if so, should they be enrolled in Comm A?

The generous Comm A grading standard described here boosts the GPA of Comm A students as well as the overall GPA for freshmen L&S students. If students taking Comm A were graded on the same standard as their fellow students taking introductory courses in such fields as economics, mathematics, chemistry and psychology, not only would their GPAs be lower but so would the overall GPA for freshmen L&S students. Although the estimated drop from 3.164 to 3.135 is not a big one, it shows how generous grading in a single large course can affect the overall GPA average.

Despite two studies of the Comm A course by the College of Letters and Science, neither study surveyed faculty members to get their assessment of student writing skills. Such a survey was done back in 1992. The disappointing results led the University of Wisconsin-Madison Faculty Senate to reestablish a two-semester writing requirement as part of its revision of the general education requirements. After the vote in May 1994, then-Chancellor David Ward remarked: “Thank you. A miracle has occurred.”

Why is it that more than 15 years after the Comm A requirement took effect, we still do not know whether students are able to write at a level deemed satisfactory by the teaching faculty? What does this say about the quality of UW-Madison’s widely advertised “The Wisconsin Experience?”

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