Faculty Forum

By Dom Caristi

Since the passage of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (commonly referred
 to as the Buckley Amendment or FERPA) in 1974, it has been well established that student grades should not be shared with anyone, not even a parent who is paying the tuition bill. It’s time to question the efficacy of this law. In fact, a greater good could be served by making students’ grades public at public colleges and universities.

My salary as a faculty member at a state university is part of the public record, as are the salaries of all state employees. The rationale for publishing salaries is that the use of state funds must be monitored to ensure that public monies are being spent appropriately. It
is not enough for citizens to have access to aggregate information about salaries; they are entitled to know the pay of every professor and every janitor.

The people examining public salary data for professors most closely are probably the professors themselves, since they have
an interest in knowing how their salaries compare with those of their colleagues. If students’ grades were made public, it is likely that professors would examine the grades given by colleagues for similar reasons: to compare grading and to see whether other professors are maintaining academic rigor.

Consider for a moment what could happen if grades were open to such analysis. Professors would be accountable to more than just their department chairs for the grades they assign. Grade inflation, a concern in higher education for decades, would be more easily detectable.

Aggregation of data for each class might also provide evidence of grade inflation, of course, but
 it would not allow for the level of scrutiny that should be applied to grades. With individual grade data, it is easier to monitor whether a professor favors one gender or group. The data would still not specify why students received the grades they did and, in that regard, still wouldn’t reveal whether professors were being fair or rigorous. But salary data don’t reveal whether university employees deserve what they are paid, either. Data of all types have limits.

Students would benefit from making grades public, too. Whether colleges and universities ought to give grades at all has been the subject of much debate. There is not space to revisit the topic here, but suffice it to say that if one believes that grades are necessary to distinguish our students from one another and to provide an incentive system, then making the grades public only amplifies the incentive effect. A diploma does nothing to distinguish one college graduate from another. Publishing grades would let potential employers know what we thought of each student’s work. University officials who oppose such transparency must be willing to admit that grades don’t mean as much as we pretend they do. The result might be a move toward portfolio-based assessment and away from the transcript. Perhaps making grades public would force colleges and universities to reevaluate the whole grading system.

Publishing grades might not eliminate websites like Rate My Professors, but it certainly would make them less influential. The opinions of a self-selected sample of students about whether a course is challenging are less useful than a complete list of grades from the course.

Making grades public could help motivate students. Writing teachers recognize that students work harder on a project when they know that their classmates will see it. Students often put much more effort into preparing for class presentations than into projects seen only by the professor. Many students can tolerate falling short of a professor’s expectations, but almost all students are concerned about how their peers see them.

Federal law dictates higher education policy, so it makes no difference what the results of a policy change would be as long as we are prevented from publishing grades. Nonetheless, as academics we ought to discuss the purpose of grades and consider whether making them public makes as much sense as publishing faculty salaries.

Dom Caristi is professor of telecommunications at Ball State University.