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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

The Gamut of Grades from A to B

January-February 2002

Slightly more than half the grades given to Harvard undergraduates during the past three academic years have been A or A-. More than any other datum, that underscores the "general upward trend in grades across divisions and across course sizes," as highlighted for Faculty of Arts and Sciences members in a letter from Susan Pedersen, dean for undergraduate education, that was publicly released on November 20. The letter prefaces 30 pages of graphs and charts tracking College grades from 1985-1986 through 2000-2001, with analyses by division and class size. It conveys the Educational Policy Committee's (EPC) belief "that grade inflation has become a serious problem...and that steps should be taken to combat it." Faculty members were asked to react to the information by February 1.

According to the data, grades increase as class sizes diminish. Moreover, grades in the humanities are "notably higher" than in the sciences and social sciences. These distinctions aside, grades generally have risen, with the mean increasing from 11.7 to 12.7 on Harvard's 15-point scale during the 15 years examined. The EPC was "troubled" by the "narrow range of effective grades available" (essentially B, B+, A-, A).

In passing, Pedersen suggested possible explanations, including "the fact that the quality of our students has improved over time" and "wider trends in our instructional practices"--either of which might cause grades to rise with educational quality, without necessarily representing "inflation."

Interviewed separately, dean of Harvard College Harry R. Lewis offered further insight on the student body. SAT I scores now indicate that the top quarter of Harvard undergraduates are all at the top of the scoring range on this commonly used aptitude test--that they are, statistically, indistinguishable from one another. In the period covered by Pedersen's data, Lewis estimated that the top-quartile SAT I score has risen 130 points for first-year Harvardians--perhaps 60 points from "SAT inflation" and the rest from a real increase in the quality of the students. By the Ivy League's "Academic Index" (used to assure the "representativeness" of athletes within the student body at each institution, based on test scores and high-school class rank), the class of 2005 scores the highest in Harvard history and the highest in the Ivies. Finally, the degree of variation among the academic-index scores has shrunk significantly in the past 20 years, Lewis said, and is now smaller than ever, and smaller than the other Ivy schools'--firm evidence of a "smarter" student body, whose members are getting harder to tell apart.

Teaching quality raises a host of separate questions. Pedersen's letter speaks of grade inflation as "an unintended but understandable consequence of closer involvement by faculty with students"--for example, as small classes and evaluation based on discussion and papers (rather than examinations) play a greater role in a course of study and yield "better student performance." Other issues, concerning technology, pedagogical aims, the use of teaching fellows, and advising, remain to be discussed.

Will this round of discussions produce wholesale reform? Pedersen's letter notes that in the past, "the faculty could not agree on a course of action." Lesser steps are also possible, ranging from publicity, to warning letters to faculty members who appear lenient, to transcripts that display both a student's mark and the course mean or median. The letter asks departments to submit "copies of any grading standards developed"--and so constitutes a form of decanal jawboning. The faculty, for its part, may decide only to address apparent interdivisional inequities--or members may not share the EPC's concern that "grade inflation" is a problem, or a remediable one.

For now, the issue is on the faculty's spring agenda.