Cum laude, asterisk
On the next biodata sheet submitted by a fresh graduate of the University of the Philippines, I will put an asterisk (*) after their name. At the foot of the page will be the reference, Randy David, “The phenomenon of ‘grade inflation,’” Public Lives, 7/24/22:
“The pandemic compelled UP to dispense with the admissions exam and rely almost exclusively on the students’ high school grades. … To ease the multiple challenges of online learning, UP admonished its faculty to exercise leniency in evaluating student performance. Accordingly, it was decided that no grade lower than 3.0 (the lowest passing grade) would be given during this health emergency. The unavoidable consequence of this has been to push up the grades of the better performers.”
Thus, the pandemic put (a) a downward bias on the average quality of the entering students, and (b) an upward bias on student grades. The column counts 147 summa cum laudes, 652 magna cum laudes, and 634 cum laudes, altogether 1,433 or a fantastic 38 percent getting honors out of the new bachelor’s degree holders of 2022. This was not because online learning is ideal for education; it is just a temporary substitute for the lack of face-to-face classes.
I believe that the quality of Philippine formal education was generally lowered—at all levels, from elementary upwards—by the pandemic. Education is a joint product of the efforts of teachers and students; the pandemic handicapped both.
I accept that it’s unfair to penalize students for the lower quality of the education they got. But I disagree about over-rewarding them relative to their “true” performance.
The UP graduates of 2022—as well as 2023, and forthcoming years, for as long as the lenient grading policy continues—are all “COVID-vintages.” Like wines in years of questionable quality in the harvested grapes, they need to be tested and/or processed further before being recommended.
In practical terms, this could mean holding remedial classes and/or special post-graduate exams, before vintage 2022 graduates can be assessed on the same basis as pre-COVID graduates. As usual, watch out for stand-ins and substitutes sent to take the classes and exams: integrity is essential!
The costs in terms of more time and more money spent to do this are unavoidable. Maybe the government can shoulder some financial costs. I don’t see how students can avoid spending more time to fill in their education to the usual standards. But better to remedy the deficiencies than to disregard them.
I was a UP Diliman economics faculty member for 19 years; I taught for 15 years, not counting leave for graduate work in Los Baños and Chicago. I was full professor when I left UP to become vice president for research at the Development Academy of the Philippines, taking along many fine UP honors graduates for my department, especially former students whom I had graded personally.
I came to believe in grading a student according to the literal meaning of the grade: in UP, 1.0 is Excellent, 1.5 is Very Good, 2.0 is Good, 2.5 is Satisfactory, 3.0 is Pass, 4.0 is Conditional, 5.0 is Fail, and INC is Incomplete. I could pass students in whom I was not satisfied—since, if I were, then I should have graded them by 2.5. Numbers like 1.25, 1.75, 2.25, and 2.75 have no meaning aside from being between adjacent grades.
To me, a grade is absolute, for a specific student, and not relative to any other student. I don’t grade along a curve. The grades I gave were probably relative to my past experience with students, but I can’t help that.
I tried to be generous in grading: a 1.0 meant Excellent or better, 2.0 meant Good but not yet Very Good, 3.0 meant at most Pass. I aggregated the performances on exams, class recitation, term paper, etc., mentally, not by arithmetic, to decide the course grade.
I could see various degrees of excellence, goodness, and adequacy of performance. A teacher has academic freedom to be subjective in grading, including allowing extra work to improve the grade. (Of course, how a registrar computes an overall grade from many course grades is beyond the role of one teacher.)
The way to moderate subjectivity in grading is by designing examination questions by committee, having multiple faculty grading the exams, and so forth. In other words, spread out the individual subjectivities. The judgment of a qualified community is objective.
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