GPA system fails to make global grade

Scholar demands action to reform 'inconsistent' marking methodology. Sarah Cunnane reports

February 17, 2011

Credit: Paul Baldesare/Alamy
Fine points: the grade-point average's global spread had led to the evolution of bastardised forms and a lack of consistency

One of global higher education's most widely used marking systems is in need of radical change to address inconsistencies in the way it has evolved, a scholar has argued.

The call for an overhaul of the grade-point average system has been made by Soh Kay Cheng, former head of the Centre for Applied Research in Education at the National Institute of Education, part of the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

In a paper titled "Grade point average: what's wrong and what's the alternative?", published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, Dr Soh says that the system's lack of consistency means that it is no longer viable in an era of globalisation.

Dr Soh, who now works as an educational consultant, told Times Higher Education that it was unclear why the method had been used for so long.

"I call it the 200-year error," he said. "Universities try to do their best to work around it, but this does not solve the problem, because GPA is still there."

He said that the benefit of the system was that it allowed academics to mark work more quickly than some alternative methods.

However, its gradual adoption worldwide had led to the evolution of bastardised forms and a lack of consistency.

As an example, Dr Soh cited an Asian student participating in an international exchange programme to the US who receives a score of 80 for his degree and a grade A.

Upon returning home, a South Korean student would find his grade was worth only a B+; a Chinese student would receive an A- or a B; and an Indian student would get a B.

"Thus, the student is disadvantaged on returning home," Dr Soh said. "This shows we need a concerted effort to try to make a global change."

Dr Soh acknowledged that the marking scheme, which has existed since 1792 (see box below), offered a common-sense approach to a complex problem.

But he countered: "Common sense can go wrong; people used to think that it was 'common sense' that the world was flat. Change will not happen until perceptions have been challenged."

The problems with the GPA system have not been addressed previously, Dr Soh said, because in the past it was relatively unusual for students to study overseas.

"In the old days, only the occasional student or scholar was picked to study abroad and it was based on their reputation for excellence," he said. However, the relatively recent boom in the number of students choosing to study abroad had exacerbated existing problems, he added.

"Many students look towards overseas study but because there is no universal system that can lead to students being marked up or down by international standards, it can be confusing and frustrating for them," Dr Soh said.

The first step to tackle the issue would be to organise global forums about GPA, the academic said.

But he warned: "Conferences and forums are just talk: we need action. There has to be some collaborative research to look into ways to reform the system."

Factory system's 18th-century origins

The creation of the grade-point average system is credited to William Farish, an 18th-century professor of chemistry and Jacksonian professor of natural philosophy at the University of Cambridge.

The idea was based on a grading scheme used in factories to determine whether goods could be sold and, therefore, whether the workers who made them should be paid.

It was first implemented in 1792 and quickly caught on elsewhere in the academy.

It is now used worldwide in countries including the US, India and Argentina. Grades are given a numerical value, and a student's total score is averaged to assign an overall GPA.

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