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John Harvard's Journal

Grade Deflation

May-June 2003

Jawboning works. That's the import of a letter to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) from Benedict H. Gross, dean of undergraduate education. He reports that even before FAS-enacted changes in College grading and the awarding of academic honors take effect, the ever-upward march of students' grades has, at least temporarily, come to an end. Extensive faculty, decanal, and presidential discussion of grading that preceded formal legislation has apparently had its effect.

During the 2001-2002 academic year, Gross's data show, the mean grade awarded declined to 12.58 from 12.65 (on the 15-point scale in use until next fall, when a 4.00 scale becomes effective). That seemingly slight change in fact brings the mean grade back to the level prevailing three years earlier, and is the first decline in the past 16 years — the period analyzed during FAS's deliberations. Mean grades declined across the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.

Moreover, the decline was driven by less-frequent A-range grades (46.4 percent of grades awarded, versus a peak of 48.4 percent in the 2000-2001 year). B-range grades increased (42.1 percent of all grades, compared to 40 percent in the prior year), driven by the use of the B+. To Gross that suggests that faculty members are seeing more formerly A- work in slightly sterner light. Grades awarded below the B- level remain essentially constant, at about 6 percent of the total.

It would not be surprising to see a deflationary trend take hold. The new grading scale eliminates numerical gaps between minus and plus grades that plagued the old scale. The tighter percent-of-class rules for determining academic honors take effect with degrees conferred in June 2005.

And FAS clearly intends to continue its informal efforts to influence faculty behavior. Gross (Leverett professor of mathematics — appropriately, in light of the data involved) is requesting course grade distributions from each instructor, "as a way of raising awareness of individual grading practices." An informational booklet on grading strategies is in the works. Department chairs now receive summaries of "departmental grading practices," and have been asked to "be in touch with individual instructors whose grading practices seem to depart from the standards articulated by the department" and FAS as a whole. "Course grade index data" will show chairs how grades in a given course compare with those the same students earned in their other courses.

All these efforts, Gross writes, aim to "assist us in the important work of evaluating the work our students do." In arts and sciences, grading henceforth will clearly be less art and more science.