Making the Grade

While few things in life are fair or easy, students have come to expect that a grade, at the very least, reflects the quality of work put into a course. Not seemingly so with grade quotas — a policy where only a certain percentage of students can get an A, and the remainder are boxed into the B and C category.

These numbers are determined by professors prior to reading or grading any students’ work— setting up numerous students to get grades lower than they would have expected, in order to curb grade inflation. Not to be confused with a grade curve, where outlying grades scored by students are dropped often to positive effect, grade quotas set a cap on high scores before the course begins.

For example, if a course only allows for 10 students to receive an A, students have to compete for those 10 slots. If 15 students’ work merits an A percentage-wise, only 10 will receive one. The other five get Bs.

At UCSD, the Academic Senate is responsible for handling grade distribution.  However, none of its policies directly address grading curves or quotas.

Mark Appelbaum, chair of Committee on Educational Policies in the Academic Senate, explained that while there are school-wide grading policies, the method used to determine grades and the school’s grade policies aren’t mutually exclusive — educators are given the freedom to decide how to mark their courses.

“The distribution of grades is a matter that individual faculty decide so that ‘my grading policy is my own policy,’” Appelbaum said. “Usually there’s some sort of general rule or idea about grades that may be in departments.”

The university gives its faculty the freedom of choosing the grading method for each class. Though Appelbaum did not know that the policy of grade quotas was common amongst faculty, and had yet to encounter a professor who put it into practice, he explained that it was a professor’s personal choice to use quotas.

“It’s my responsibility to teach the content of the course, how I do it is part of my professional judgment,” Appelbaum said.

Lisa Lowe, a professor of literature and Critical Gender Studies, said a grade quota system would not work well for her writing courses.

“It doesn’t make sense to me in teaching literature,” Lowe said. “In general, when I grade a literature student’s performance, I evaluate the student’s ability to read closely, interpret and think analytically, as well as the quality of their written and oral expression.  I grade students on the quality of their own individual performances.”

Kristopher Nelson, a social science T.A., used grade quotas when evaluating students in a contemporary law course taught by Professor Gerald Doppelt. Nelson said Doppelt felt that the students should earn their grades and the grade policy of the class was not set in stone and allowed T.A.s to award more As if they deemed it as necessary . The professor allowed the T.A.’s to grade with more flexibility and the amount of As allowed expanded as the quarter wore on.

“It’s a sense of countering grade inflation, when people who got As actually deserved the As,” Nelson said.

Princeton agrees. Six years ago, the Ivy League university aimed to reduce grade inflation by setting a maximum number of As that students could receive, encouraging students to compete for the elusive higher marks. According to the New York Times, the move has been an unpopular one, especially with such a competitive economy — lower grades reduce the chance of being hired, and it seems graduate schools and employers seldom factor in grade deflation.

Princeton’s administrators have been working to remedy the issue by sending out notifications about the grade deflation to graduate schools and employers.

But here, the grading policy isn’t the same across the board, so schools have not notified potential employers and graduate schools.  At UCSD, the average under graduate GPA sits around a 3.0. When some professors chose to implement grade deflation policies at random, it drops this already-low average.

Nelson understood why so many students were frustrated with a system that seemed arbitrary, but said that the results often panned out in the end.

“I don’t think it’s just due to chance,” Nelson said, “People pretty much ended up similar to how I would have given them grades without that restriction.”

As a result of the quota, more students came to Nelson’s office hours to discuss their grades and to understand the course content better. The competition between students helped motivate them to out-study their classmates.

Nelson said that the quotas build character and a competitive spirit among students.

“It did encourage people to work harder, they knew they had to actually work to get an A,” he said.

He added, “it can be beneficial in the sense that people worked harder and maybe learned more.”

For UCSD students, the jury is still out on whether grade quotas are a good thing. For many students in Doppelt’s course, the negatives outweighed the benefits.

“It’s totally unfair,” Amy Gains* said,  “If I had known that this class had grade quotas, I would have dropped it. Now I’m stuck.”

In her case, the LAWS 101 course syllabus did not mention that the professor would use quotas.  As students were graded, T.A.s realized they had awarded too many high marks and erased original grades from papers or exams, replacing them with a lower, less satisfactory grades.

Sophie Rosseel, an Eleanor Roosevelt College sophomore, took a physics course which used quotas and agrees with Doppelt’s students.

“Professors should grade students based on how well they understand the material rather than mold the grades to fit certain quotas,” she said. “My main problem with them is that in a class full of high-achieving students, someone still has to fill the lower quota; it’s unfair to the students.”

Still, a number of students expressed favorable opinions on grade quotas. Kaitlyn Keigharn, a Muir College senior, has taken several classes that implement grade quota policies, all of which were offered by UCSD’s science department.

“I felt that it actually encouraged students to work harder,” she said.

Though the controversy is unlikely to die down soon, especially during the current economic depression, Appelbaum provides UCSD students with a simple solution — ask your professors if they utilize grade quotas. Though the quota policy isn’t prohibited, those who find it limiting could always drop the course and try re-enrolling under another professor at a later date.

“I think as long as you know in advance, so that when you go into that course that you know that this is going to be a curved course and that you know that 15 percent of the grades will be A’s and 40 percent will be…if that doesn’t seem like the way you want to do this, [then] drop that course and move to another section,” he said.

Fair point.

*Name has been changed to

protect privacy.


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