These days, it's common knowledge in academia that grades aren't what they used to be. Throughout the Ivy League, the mean grade has steadily climbed over the past quarter century.
And grade inflation is a statistical fact at Harvard, where twice as many students receive A-range grades as their counterparts twenty-five years ago. Over the past quarter century, the mean grade has increased from just over a B-to above a B+, two full points on Harvard's 15 point scale.
It's obviously disturbing when the number of A-range grades is virtually equal to B-range grades. And it's no secret to students that in certain guts a B+ is as automatic as handing in the papers and skimming some sucker's lecture notes before the final.
When grades cease to be meaningful, graduate schools and employers have no choice but to depend on standardized test scores to measure student's aptitudes. And while these test scores are relevant, four years of academic work should weigh heavier than an afternoon exam.
And so the Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE) this past week considered altering the Harvard transcript to include mean grades and class size next to students' grades. Yet the Committee is wisely shying away from this misguided proposal.
Merely placing these numbers next to students' grades does not say a whole lot about a class.
The mean grade is inherently unreliable as a measure of a class's difficulty. It fails to distinguish between a higher level concentration class of well-prepared students or a flaming gut.
And it's unclear how class size figures in to the picture. While noting a small class size can help discredit the statistical reliability of the mean, a large class does not necessarily imply a gut.
Moreover, by altering official transcripts, Harvard places its students at a competitive disadvantage to their counterparts at other schools.
By suggesting that Harvard's grades are so unreliable as to require special clarification, the College implies that grade inflation is a local problem.
And this simply isn't the case. Grade inflation has surely not hit Harvard harder than any other elite college in the nation.
While Harvard must try to keep grades meaningful both as a comparative measure between departments and as a measure of performance in general, tinkering with the transcript is not the answer.
Instead, Harvard should encourage professors to grade more consistently--not clutter the transcript with new numbers that are more misleading than the grades.
We urge CUE committee chair Dean of Undergraduate Education Lawrence Buell and Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Education Jeffrey Wolcowitz to consider carefully the suggestions CUE committee members offer to combat grade inflation.