Administration considers long-term removal of Carta grade distributions

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After Carta disabled its popular performance feature at the start of spring quarter, university administration is now considering whether or not it will return. 

The popular course planning website Carta disabled its performance feature following the implementation of a universal satisfactory/no credit (S/NC) grading basis due to COVID-19. Despite a return to a letter grade basis for the summer quarter and an optional credit/no credit system for the entirety of the 2020-21 academic year, the performance feature has yet to return.

Instead of displaying grade distributions for a course, students quickly noticed the feature was replaced by a message indicating that University leadership had asked the Carta team to disable the element “in light of recent changes to grading policy related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The message now reads, “Stanford’s administration has asked us to discontinue the grade distribution feature on Carta. If you have questions or ideas for other information we can show here instead, please reach out to us at [email protected], or using the feedback tab on the right,” omitting any reference to grading policy or the pandemic. 

“We don’t currently know of any plans to reinstate the performance feature, but students and faculty are welcome to reach out to [email protected] for up-to-date information,” Akshay Srivatsan ’21, the student lead on the Carta V2 engineering team, wrote in a statement to The Daily. 

University spokesperson E.J. Miranda wrote that the University is currently “in the process of assessing the practices and data systems that are used to develop the performance information to ensure students have an accurate and effective tool as they plan their schedules,” in a statement to The Daily. “The review is ongoing and we will provide updates as appropriate.” 

“Many on the Carta team share students’ hope that the feature might return in the future,” Srivatsan wrote. “Because Carta works in partnership with other units of Stanford to obtain data for our services, we are bound by the University’s decisions regarding the data.” 

Student perspectives on the performance feature

“The grade distribution feature was one of the most unique and helpful features of Carta, and it was extremely helpful when I chose classes,” Nadia Jo ’23, a Daily staffer said.

She stated that withholding grade distributions during the pandemic only adds to the uncertainty and confusion that many students are already facing. 

“It’s much better to bring back grade distributions for transparency than it is to coerce students into not caring about grades,” she added.

Benji Reade Malagueno ’22 discussed how the Carta grade distribution feature helped him choose GEOPHYS 184: Journey to the Center of the Earth, one of his favorite classes at Stanford. 

Even though the course had a heavy workload, Malagueno was reassured by the fact that 80% of students received A’s. 

“The class was one of my favorites, because I got pushed really hard but was never really pressured about the grade,” he said. “I took the learning in my own direction and learned a lot without worrying about the pressure of the grade.”

Both Malagueno and Jo cited various benefits of keeping grade distributions. 

According to Jo, the feature gives students transparent information that isn’t always easily accessible from previous students or teaching staff. 

“It helps students understand what their overall workload will look like. It also shows the expected level of mastery and what the teaching staff’s standards are like,” she said.

 “For people whose GPA matters, for instance pre-med students or Ph.D.-bound students, grade distributions can help inform that and help you make the most of that,” Malagueno said.

“Using grade distributions in conjunction with reviews and workload can paint a vivid picture of what to expect in terms of learning during the classes,” he added.

Jo opposes the idea that grade distributions encourage students to pick classes for an easy A. 

“Knowing that you have a high chance of succeeding in a certain class doesn’t mean you’re going to put in less effort,” she said. “In fact, being comfortable with the material is more likely to motivate you to engage with the course.”

In 2018, Stanford researchers found that Carta’s grade distribution feature has a negative effect on students’ GPAs. On average, students who used Carta in the researchers’ study experienced a GPA decline of 0.16 standard deviations. That translated to a 0.28 standard deviation decline for freshmen and sophomores, but only a 0.09 standard deviation slide for juniors and seniors.

Srivatsan wrote that Carta helps students explore new fields, learn about classes, make thoughtful choices and plan their workloads. 

“The performance feature used to be one of the pieces of information we showed to help students do these things more effectively,” Srivatsan wrote, citing papers published by CartaLab that have studied how Carta impacts students’ course decisions.

Future course planning 

When asked whether Carta grade distributions should be kept or removed for the upcoming school year, all three students stated that Carta should bring back grade distributions. 

“Personally, I would have encouraged the University to retain the grade distribution,” Srivatsan wrote. “Many students have reached out to us with requests to have the distributions reinstated, so we know students are concerned about the disappearance of this feature.” 

Jo supported the reinstatement of the grade distribution feature even for S/NC courses, stating that students should be able to see what percentage of students get a C- or above in difficult classes.

“Stanford students’ lives during COVID-19 are riddled with uncertainty and anxiety…Why can’t we be more informed as we plan for the future?” Jo asked. 

Malagueno described advantages to retaining the grade distributions during a remote learning era. 

“On campus I would just ask someone in the dining hall, ‘Oh you took this class, how was it?’ But with remote learning, it’s not like I’m going to Zoom call someone just because I have a hunch that they took a class and I want to know more,” he said.

“We can’t predict how exactly the removal of the performance feature will affect the student course planning experience, but we know from students that it will be missed,” Srivatsan wrote. “…we hope Stanford will decide to re-enable it so future students will be able to make well-informed, thoughtful choices about their academic plans.”

Contact Vilina Mehta at vmehta19 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Esha Dhawan at edhawan ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Esha Dhawan '23 is a Science & Technology Desk Editor interested in the intersection of science and communication. She is majoring in human biology and minoring in creative writing. Contact her at edhawan 'at' stanford.edu.
Vilina Mehta '22 writes for The Grind and News. She is also a Desk Editor for the high school summer journalism workshop. Outside of The Stanford Daily, Vilina enjoys scientific research, playing the piano/flute, and volunteering. Contact her at vmehta19 'at' stanford.edu.