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Relative grading system — a boon or bane

March 17, 2012

mid-terms nearing, the talk of campuses these days is grades. At Khan Waiz’s office, students trickle in twos and threes every couple of minutes to find out if their grades have arrived. Khan Waiz handles the grading affairs for Dr. Ashfaque Hasan, Dean Business School of National University of Sciences and Technology (Nust).

Waiz tells the students their marks. The more persistent ones ask for one or two colleagues’ too. But the most persistent walk around his desk to the other side and look at all the other students’ marks.

The reason: relative grading. What each student scores, is only good if it is good in comparison to the grades of the rest of the class. And as more and more universities are transitioning to relative grading system, the question of grading systems is coming to the fore more frequently.

For Nust, which has had a relative grading system since its inception, this was a policy decision. As many officials of the university point out, reasons for this choice were plenty: It is required by Pakistan Engineering Council (PEC) as well as internationally; the relative grading system is recognised more easily than an absolute grading system.

“International universities have to have a reliable system to establish the credibility of a degree and our degrees are recognised worldwide,” said Dr. Safdar, Director Academics at Nust.

Relative grading relies on statistical system to plot the marks of each student on a curve and is based on overall performance of the class which decides the boundaries for how grades are assigned.

However, this does not mean there are always A-grades or failures in a class, the system decides an average and assigns grades above and below the average accordingly.

Practically, as Farah Khan, a student at Nust pointed out: “It means that in a class it might be that 10 people score above 90 but since they cannot give a lot of As, those who score from 98-96 get As, while those scoring between 96-94 get B+ and B falls between 94-90. So even if you score that well in a test, you might end up getting a B.”

However, such anomalous marks where a majority of the class is scoring very high or very low in a test or class may represent a flawed evaluation system or variations in leniency of the teachers. A very strict teacher might design exams where the highest is a 70 and in such cases, students might even be getting Bs at 55 or 60.

“It is in covering up the differences on the index of severity of teachers that the relative grading system is much stronger than the absolute grading system,” explained Professor Zahid at Bahria University.

“Also, such a grading system makes it harder for teachers to have biases or favoritism. If they show favoritism towards or biases against one student, the whole class’s grades will move up or down,” he further added.

In fact, Farah of Nust agreed that while relative grading can be a problem when a whole class performs exceptionally well, but it is also helpful when a class underperforms: “It can also be beneficial when there are very strict teachers where you might be getting an A at 40.”

A student from Nust similarly said, “The relative grading system does make your education a rat race and not about the learning – it gets too competitive and cut-throat. I mean we are going towards destructiveness rather than constructive learning.”

But the point remains that universities do feel the need to move to a system which is more internationally acceptable. Director Exams of National University for Modern Languages (Numl), Bashir Ahmad, said that Numl is considering shifting to a relative grading system and rules have been circulated amongst professors.

According to Mr Ahmad, there are two reasons for the shift: “Internationally there is a system of GPA and we want to bring our Masters Programme to that level. We also want this system to give advantage to the students, especially the weakest students, who might be getting negatively affected by the absolute marking system.”

On the flip side, Controller of Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU) was an eager supporter of the absolute grading system: “We are not lax and don’t find ways to change grades through a relative system. Our rules are very hard and fast and this is why we are the number one university.”

But another professor, Prof Nauman Shafi, at the same university gave a more flexible view and argued that it really is not about the system of grading but what you aim to achieve with it. “The focus should not be on relative or absolute grading but on quality of education and what best fits our environment, mindsets and culture. Frankly, I don’t think our student can cope with a relative grading system because they come from such diverse streams and systems that relative grading won’t work.

Looking from the quality perspective, if a lot of students are competing on a level plain, then relative grading is better. But in the context of QAU, the absolute system works better. I would, however, vote for more subdivisions in grades so that we have more grades than simply A, B and C but also have B+, B- and so on.”

Dr. Zahid of Bahria University was similarly skeptical of a relative grading system. “Look at our education system, it is all borrowed and confused, we have kids coming from the O Levels stream and the Matric stream. The flaw is not just in the system of grading but in our teaching methodologies, curriculum, examination, and evaluation system. I don’t think our students can cope with a relative system until everything is put in line to go with it.”

“What the Higher Education Commission (HEC) needs to do is to bring together the top decision makers from all the big universities and form a committee to devise a uniform system across the board so that our students don’t get hurt moving from one system to another,” concluded Dr. Zahid.