Nowhere to go but down — UI’s proposed plus/minus grading scale lacks crucial element


The University of Idaho may be moving to a plus/minus grading system.

Under the system, grades would be scaled in value with the addition of minuses and pluses. An A would remain at a GPA value of 4.0, but an A- would be reduced to a value of 3.7. On the flip side, a grade of B+ would be upgraded to a value of 3.3, while a B grade would remain at 3. Since this is college, I’ll assume you can figure out the rest.

To gauge student interest, UI’s Teaching and Advising Committee is distributing a survey to ascertain the practicality of the possible move.
As it is currently presented, this system is deeply flawed.

By excluding any possibility of an A+, the university not only undermines the goal of the system itself, but simultaneously disadvantages its highest-achieving students.

To start, the goal of the university is to more accurately measure students’ performance. This makes sense.

Under the current whole-letter system, no distinction is made between a student with a grade of 89 and one with an 81. At the same time, there is a vast difference in GPA between an 89 and a 90.

Boosting the value of the 89 while reducing the value of the 81 and the 90 allows institutions and employers to better differentiate between students.

But this goal falls apart with the exclusion of an A+. Under the current proposal, A

grades would theoretically be separated into categories of 90 to 92 for an A- and 93+ for an A.

Without an A+, students achieving the highest grades at the university would now be bunched into two categories separated by just one percentage point instead of three categories separated relatively evenly over ten.

This makes no sense.

Why differentiate between an 89 and an 85 for students earning B’s, but throw away this distinction for the highest achieving students? Shouldn’t the minute distinctions between top-tier students be just as, if not more important than the distinctions between students earning lower GPA’s?

The proposed system would single out students earning A’s in the very low 90’s, but

continue to lump together every student above that level.

If the university truly wishes to more accurately gauge student performance, it should do

so across all levels of grading.

This perplexing facet of the proposed system is not even its greatest problem. As is currently constructed, the scale unfairly punishes the highest-achieving and arguably hardest working students.

Lacking the ability to earn an A+, the GPA’s of straight-A students can only deteriorate.

Take, for instance, a student currently taking four classes and earning grades of 91, 92, 97 and 98. Without an A+ category weighted above 4.0, this student would be damaged by the grades of 91 and 92, yet would see no reward for achieving the 97 and 98.

The university would recognize the efforts a student made to earn a 69 but not the astronomically greater effort it takes to earn a 97. It would punish students working the hardest while rewarding students who scrape by with little more than the bare minimum required of them.

This inherent lack of fairness does not just apply to straight-A students. Any student earning A’s in the majority of their classes, whether it be 60 percent or 90 percent, stands to lose more than they gain.

The counter-argument often proposed to justify the exclusion of an A+ is that it would require a GPA level above 4.0. Increasing the maximum GPA to 4.3, opponents argue, would naturally devalue a GPA of 3.3, in effect destroying the entire purpose of a plus/minus grading system.

An exceedingly simple solution exists that nullifies this argument completely.

Following the example of Arizona State University, UI could simply incorporate an A+ grade with a weighted value of 4.3 while capping the maximum cumulative GPA at 4.0.

This would allow students to benefit from A+ grades, but only up to the well-established maximum.

Going back to our student example above, said student could relax knowing that their low A’s would be balanced out by their high A’s, just as a B, C or D student could.

Therefore, the inclusion of a 4.3 weighted A+ and a cumulative cap of 4.0 creates a system that allows both professors and institutions to better assess student performance while treating students at every level of GPA fairly.

If the university continues to push forward with a scale that lacks these elements, it will render the goals of both administrators and faculty all but unattainable by creating a frustrating and ineffective system that not only fails to differentiate between, but also punishes, the school’s highest achieving students.

Ian Hahn can be reached at or on Twitter at @IanCHahn

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