Tortoises and Hares at the Med School
A Protest Sputters
Petty orators and ambitious essayists who like to eulogize protest movements may want to remember the effort of Harvard Medical School students in the fall of 1973 to ambush their faculty and change the grading plan. For that protest, which left the group with an ingenious system to west the grading process from the instructors, is now deeply entombed beneath concession and compromise.
Last November, 140 of 162 firstyear students in the combined Dental School-Medical School class we steeled for a fight to return the first two and a half years, or preclinical training, to pass/fail grading. A few months earlier the faculty had voted to add two more ranks to a five-year old experiment at pass/fail grading. So the marking system the students were fighting was a four-point (excellent-pass-marginal-fail) system.
The most menacing hobgoblin to the student protestors was the marginal category. Originally billed by the faculty as a warning to only those students who wee on the verge of failure, the marginal rank had been stretched by some graders to include one-sixth of the class.
So in an early November meeting, students decided to number but not sign blue-books at an upcoming examination in physiology. Appointed students would hang on to lists of names and their respective numbers. Then, when the faculty released the grades along with the student code numbers, those students representatives would make sure that only those who failed identified themselves. That way, the faculty would have no choice but to record simply pass grades for all students who did not claim their numbers.
The plan worked well, first for the exam in physiology, then again on a microbiology exam three weeks later. But the matter had to come to a head in early December. Both previous tests had been hour exams with no rules regulating grading procedures. But final exam period loomed, and on those tests students, by rule, had to be graded on the fourpoint plan. The administration would have to make its stand.
And the remarkable thing about this whole protest is that the students did not make the administration take a stand. Hardly had Dr. Robert H. Ebert, dean of the Med faculty, threatened to award "incompletes" to all those who numbered finals, than the students buried the hatchet.
They agreed to hand over sealed lists of the code numbers but said they would continue to number the exams. What that measure did was assure the faculty that the students would respect its decision on the matter. There was little the administration wanted more than to have those lists locked away in the dean's desk. Now it could be sure that no wild-eyed students would try to perpetuate the system or burn the lists and make the pass/fail grades permanent. It was no sacrifice to allow the students to continue their numbering ritual through finals; everything would be set right at the next faculty meeting.
Not only did the students back down, but they did it gracefully.
"Out of good faith," they wrote in a letter to Ebert on December 1, "...some members of the class felt that the Faculty of Medicine should not be forced to make such a decision at this time under duress."
With a little more shrewdness than the students, the faculty quickly bottled the issue in a committee equally composed of students and faculty. And at a January 23 faculty meeting, that group produced the inevitable compromise.
Despite speculation that the marginal grade would be wholly eliminated, it was changed to a "satisfactory" grade that unlike its predecessor would be kept confidential and would not remain on a student's record. However, a merely "satisfactory" student would still have to make up his work, and his "satisfactory" might keep him from graduating.
The students also allowed the faculty to keep the "excellent" rank intact as a carrot to keep the competitive competing. The measures, of course, were passed by the faculty.
One of the most interesting sidelights to the issue is the fact that Harvard scores on the National Boards for medicine, administered before graduation, have dropped from almost uniformly number-one status, ever since the faculty changed the curriculum and introduced pass/fail grading in 1968. Most attribute the drop to the change in curriculum; the only faculty that did not "diffuse" itself under that 1968 plan was the Biological Chemistry Department, and scores for Harvard students in that part of the National Boards have not budged from their number-one position. The faculty will vote to implement a new curriculum later this spring.
Whether faculty concern over the Boards prompted its tenacious stance on the grading system is a subject of great debate. Eugene P. Kennedy, Kuhn Professor of Biological Chemistry and the chairman of that department, said earlier this month that his students did well under both pass/fail and graded systems, and that grading did not affect performance.
Some students insist, though, that their instructors wanted to retain the four-point plan to help boost the board scores to their previous levels.
Eugene Welljamsdorf'73, a firstyear Med student, said two weeks ago that the drop in the boards owed partly to the advent of pass/fail grading, but he added that the faculty's despair over the test scores is not valid.
"Not scoring high on the boards means that you've learned around 20 percent less trash. It's like an achievement test--just straight out-and-out facts," he said.
However, Kennedy said, "A student who can't get through the National Boards really hasn't mastered the field."
Whatever motivated the faculty's decision to retain the graduated grade plan, student complaints have not ceased. About 60 of 100 students who gathered to consider the system shortly after its inception voted to oppose it.
One class member, who asked to remain anonymous, said that while most students want to knock down the grade plan, "no one would have enough energy" to implement the numbering plan again.
"We're all played out now," he explained.