Transcript Changes Mulled

CUE Leans Against Reform Proposal

A plan to put class size and mean grades next to students' grades on transcripts drew little support at yesterday's Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE) meeting.

But while the student-faculty committee did not endorse the plan, it will discuss the issue of transcript reform again at its next meeting on November 30.

The proposal, intended to battle grade inflation at Harvard, was discussed last year in the Faculty Council, the CUE committee and the faculty Educational Policy Committee, but there has been no concrete move on the issue.

The agenda for yesterday's discussion said the CUE committee had to "decide whether to resubmit the proposal for further discussion" by the Faculty Council.

Because the committee did not reach a decision, Dean for Undergraduate Education Lawrence Buell asked members to tell him or Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education Jeffrey Wolcowitz their ideas on how to deal with grade inflation.

"I think [grade inflation] is a very important issue that you want to be very careful with," Associate Professor of Applied Mechanics Howard A. Stone said after the meeting. "What you heard at the committee meeting is that it's no longer clear what the proper solution is."

The discussion about transcript reform and grade inflation, which was off the record at the request of a guest professor attending the meeting, lasted nearly an hour.

Faculty and students raised a number of concerns about the proposal, which some felt would increase competition and hurt students.

Professor of History James A. Hankins said that he said at the meeting that he liked the idea of reporting a mean grade for different categories of classes, such as upper-level mathematics courses or history surveys, rather than for individual classes.

Baird Professor of Science Gary J. Feldman discussed that plan in a memo last May, and it came up again at yesterday's meeting.

But Hankins said he is still undecided on transcript reform.

"I'm wavering," Hankins said. "One the one hand, one would like to make the grades more meaningful. On the other hand, I don't like making what everyone gives public.... It's such a fraught issue."

When Hankins was teaching at Columbia University, where the mean grade for each class was published, there were problems regarding required classes, he said.

"They had a core curriculum there," Hankins said. "People were desperately trying to get into one [professor's] section [of a class] as compared to another."

"One thing I liked a lot about Harvard is that people didn't talk about grades in particular courses," he said. "I don't think that people sign up for my courses because I'm a hard or an easy grader."

Feldman said after the meeting that he was worried not just about grade inflation but about a shrinking range of grades.

"I do have some concerns about the compression of the grading scale," Feldman said. "I don't think that's healthy."

"Ideally, one just gets the faculty to agree on a common grading scheme that's reasonable and stick to it," he said. "So far I don't have a good way of doing that."

He said that even within departments, grading can vary, because upper-division courses with concentrators will probably have a higher average than lower-division courses.

"This type of variation really has to be taken into account," Feldman said. "Each department should gauge on its own how it can really do that. This can't be done in any mechanismic way, but through discussion of the faculty."

CUE committee member Alissa S. Brotman '97, who said she is undecided on transcript reform, said after the meeting that she is worried it could make Harvard students even more competitive.

She said that one Monday morning, she went around and asked her friends how their weekends were.

"They judged everything on the amount of work they accomplished," said Brotman, who is a biochemistry concentrator. "They didn't say, 'Oh, I went to a great party.'"

"To place additional stress on students to compete for a grade might be bad," Brotman said.

She added that she sees nothing wrong with students receiving high grades if they spend a lot of time on a class.

One professor on the committee said that she would like to see students "learn for the sake of learning" and not worry so much about grades.

"I actually didn't realize until the meeting today that students truly think that Bs are bad," said Assistant Professor of Psychology Cynthia F. Moss.

She said that "a systematic study of the policies that are used to make admissions decisions" to graduate schools might ease the minds of students.

But Hankins said that entrance to graduate school is a pressing concern.

"I really am worried about Harvard students being at a disadvantage in law school applications" if Harvard's average grades were to go down as a result of transcript change, he said. "There are places that operate strictly on numbers, like the University of Texas.