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January 31, 2000

NES forums continue; decision expected at senate meeting

By Jim Burns

Two campus forums in January on the Narrative Evaluation System underscored the variety of opinions that are held about the manner in which the work of UCSC students should be assessed. More views are expected to be aired between now and the annual Convocation on Teaching, the final venue for discussion of the Narrative Evaluation System (NES) prior to the winter-quarter meeting of the Academic Senate.

The convocation, scheduled for February 14, will explore the subject: "NES and Pedagogy: Are Narrative Evaluations Important to Teaching and Learning at UCSC?" The convocation will take place from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. in Classroom Unit 2.

In addition, students and faculty are invited to discuss the NES's future at Student Affairs' Winter 2000 Campus Leadership Retreat on Thursday, February 3, from 4:45 to 8 p.m. in the Merrill Dining Hall. Those interested in attending are asked to RSVP.

At the February 23 meeting of the Academic Senate, the senate's Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) is expected to propose that faculty "divide" the two questions before them: Should the campus adopt UC's conventional grading system, and what should become of the NES? The senate meeting is scheduled to take place at 3 p.m. in Theater Arts, Second Stage.

Speaking at the second forum, on January 24, CEP chair George Brown said his committee is inclined to recommend that the senate proceed with an "up or down" vote on February 23 on a proposal that seeks to make grades mandatory--before tackling the issue of leaving the NES unchanged, modifying it, or doing away with it.

To date, the forums have produced a handful of proposals--and considerable dialogue.

One proposal, put forward by physicist Bruce Rosenblum, would implement UC's traditional letter-grade system while making narratives a nontranscript option that is provided students at the discretion of each class's instructor.

A second, proposed by psychologist Barbara Rogoff, would retain the spirit of the NES, but replace narratives with performance evaluations--a change that Rogoff said would "simplify the process of writing and reporting evaluations" and give faculty and students a better idea of the areas of assessment.

A third, by Professor Emeritus Stanley Williamson of chemistry, would provide narratives only to undergraduates earning a "class ranking equivalent to a classical grade of 'B' or 'A,'" thus preserving the value of narratives but reducing the workload. "I am unclear as to whether the proponents of the demise of the NES are speaking more due to their perception of uselessness in transmitting valuable information to the student or to others. . . or to their desire to reduce their workload," Williamson said.

Computer scientist Allen Van Gelder, offering a fourth idea, said UCSC should adopt the standard UC grading policy and support a modified narratives system. Under Van Gelder's plan, instructors would determine whether to "enter" a narrative--but even blank evaluations would be returned to students to confirm that the process is completed. In Van Gelder's system, narratives would be internal only, "for the students' own information."

Computer sciences student James Sheldon also weighed in with a proposal, saying that the assessment system should be expanded by requiring students to participate by "completing a self-evaluation." Sheldon also called for reduced class sizes, adding that narratives have "decreasing value in large introductory classes."

The forums, retreat, and convocation were scheduled to solicit input and stimulate discussion on the Narrative Evaluation System in the wake of a December meeting of the Academic Senate called to consider replacing the NES with the conventional UC grading system. That meeting was prompted by a petition signed by more than 170 members of the senate.

By a one-vote margin, the senate in December voted to move the matter to its CEP and Graduate Council for consideration.

Rosenblum's proposal to make narratives optional reflects a belief held by a number of UCSC faculty that the NES is making it more difficult for the campus to attract and retain students with strong academic records and to communicate the quality of UCSC students to graduate and professional schools and prospective employers. "I know companies that will not consider UCSC students" who present them with narratives as their transcripts, Rosenblum said, adding that people outside UCSC see the NES as a "pass-fail system" that does not promote serious scholarship.

The NES, Rosenblum also concluded, "is largely responsible for the campus's laid-back image."

Rogoff, on the other hand, noted that grades have only been an option in all UCSC classes for two years--making it premature to change to a system of mandatory grades. "We should closely examine the optional GPA system in three years when we will have data to determine whether there is a problem that needs solving."

She does, however, favor a change that makes narratives more like performance evaluations. "Some faculty regard a good NE to be like a long, personal letter of recommendation. . . . We should revise the norm to respect a template-based brief evaluation that contextualizes the dimensions of students' performance," Rogoff said.

Many of the speakers at the first two forums echoed Rogoff's belief that an assessment system that provides more information than a grade has educational value--and in the process, may actually attract students to UCSC.

Previous Currents stories on the NES:

First 'narratives' forum produces two quite different perspectives

Continuing the discussion of the NES

Senate narrowly postpones vote on narrative evaluations

Proposal to eliminate 'narratives' goes before Academic Senate

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