A controversial grading guideline within the electrical engineering department was voted out by a faculty majority on Feb. 3. The guideline affected roughly 900 electrical engineering and computer engineering students and the tenure-track faculty who teach them.
The guideline, which had been in place for more than two decades according to numerous sources, was applied in order to standardize grade point averages and prevent grade inflation for certain classes within the department. The guideline could partially pre-determine student grades even before the quarter started. For instance, if a student set the curve and it was too high, their grade could be lowered to fit into that particular class’ grading guidelines or vice versa.
The guideline was not official but was adhered to within the department. A sophomore computer engineering student, who requested anonymity to prevent discrimination within the department, said the fact the guideline was “hidden” proves it wasn’t fair.
“I think the fact that the department didn’t tell anyone that this was their policy and that they were secret about it, shows how wrong the policy was to begin with,” he said.
The guideline was similar to curving grades in classes, but was subtly different. Curving during a class is based on students’ cumulative performances during the quarter. If a professor’s material is unusually hard, the top grade of the class would determine how the curve is set for the rest of the class.
The guideline didn’t only affect students. When faculty members were being reviewed for tenure, they were evaluated through the Retention, Promotion and Tenure (RPT) guidelines. This is called a “probationary” period.
Provost Robert Koob said he became troubled when professors were being required to follow the guideline in order to remain on tenure track.
“My concern was that this guideline would show up occasionally that would make it seem like more than a guideline,” Koob said. “It would show up when evaluating teachers.”
Department chair Art MacCarley said the purpose of this guideline was to curb grade inflation and to prevent “harsh instructors from grading far below the norm.” He said he couldn’t legally comment on whether or not the guideline was used in RPT reviews.
“They existed strictly as guidelines and were not hard restraints,” MacCarley said. “We’d prescribe a range of grades in this mode, of this level, in this range. It didn’t prevent grades from falling outside that range.”
Another factor MacCarley said resulted in the removal of the guideline was an Academic Senate policy.
“There is an Academic Senate ruling that (if a guideline) could influence the grade of students, it needs to be published,” MacCarley said. “This wasn’t published, so we voted it down.”
David Conn, the associate vice president for inclusive excellence, a program that looks to provide equal student opportunities on campus, said that such a system is not unusual, especially in engineering schools and departments. But he said such a guideline disregards individual teacher performances and may lessen their motivation to improve.
“What I personally object to is the notion that this is a static situation, that everything is going to be the same irrespective of who you have in the class or who is teaching it,” Conn said. “If I’m successful at being a good teacher, which means I have the ability to make my students learn better, then this process prevents me from giving them the grade they deserve.”
Improved student performance could also be ignored under this system, Conn said. Cal Poly makes a strong effort to improve their students’ performance, and there is evidence that even prior to attending Cal Poly, students’ performances are improving.
“We do have data that the quality of our students, our expectations, in terms of grades, high school standings, test scores and so on, have gone up over the years,” Conn said. “One of the consequences is we’ve been graduating more students.”
Many people on campus, including administrators, students and teachers, said they think the guideline was unfair and goes against university learning objectives. Cal Poly’s grading policy is based on the “attainment of course objectives,” according to the 2009-2011 Cal Poly catalog.
Scott Waddell, a 2009 electrical engineering graduate, said he didn’t explicitly know about the unique guideline within his department until his fourth year. He said it is not unusual for electrical engineering students’ grades to be curved, so he never took notice. But Waddell said the potential for furthering of faculty careers over student achievement was disturbing.
“I think the part of it being unfair is whether or not a teacher gets tenure,” Waddell said. “You’re putting a pressure on a professor to change grades that aren’t reflective of their or students’ performance. That’s the part that I have a problem with … professors being strung along to help them achieve department goals.”
When Waddell was told about the guideline by “several professors,” he said he was too busy with his course load to get involved.
Some students within the department, like Mike Sweetman, another 2009 electrical engineering graduate, said he didn’t feel the guideline affected his work.
“I didn’t notice much of a difference between what I got and what was recorded,” Sweetman said. “I feel like I earned my grades and my teachers weren’t trying to prove something by inflating or deflating.”
But some say that a guideline like this is inappropriate no matter how small the effect may be on students. An anonymous source from within the department said they were simply disappointed with the lack of support for students.
“It saddens me how this place is so non-student oriented; (professors) are here to promote their careers, promote themselves,” the source said. “Students come last.”