Faculty Agree Grade Inflation Troubling

After receiving the most comprehensive report on grading policy compiled in recent decades, several department chairs said yesterday that they recognize a serious need to curb Harvard grade inflation.

Though the Faculty as a whole is still taking time to digest the findings of the report, compiled by the Educational Policy Committee (EPC) of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), individual Faculty members told The Crimson they are taking the problem very seriously.

The next step will be for the chairs to bring the grading discussion back to their departments and report the results to Dean for Undergraduate Education Susan G. Pedersen ’81-’82 by Feb. 1. However, the immediate responses of some of these Facutly members imply that the report might eventually result in substantial change to Harvard’s grading policies.

“I agree with the sentiment that we have gone too far in grade inflation, and I think the EPC and its concerns about where we are on grading are very valid ones,” said Paine Professor of Practical Astronomy Jonathan Grindlay, chair of the astronomy department.

The EPC document reported that grades in the humanities tend to be much higher than those in the natural and social sciences.

According to the report, about 54 percent of undergraduates in humanities courses received A-range grades during the 2000-2001 academic year, compared with 50 percent of students in the natural sciences and 43 percent in the social sciences.

Marquand Professor of English and chair of the English department Lawrence Buell said he was shocked to learn that more than half of the grades given in the humanities are within the A range.

“Although grades in humanities courses have always, in general, been higher than in the other two divisions, I was surprised that the level of A/A- grades is now at 50 percent,” Buell wrote in an e-mail.

Professor of Greek and Latin and chair of the Classics department Richard F. Thomas said that he believes it is easier for grading in the humanities to fall prey to subjectivity.

“The humanities are less empirically based—there’s less of a distinction between right and wrong and more latitude for subjectivity,” Thomas said.

The EPC report also found a significant difference between the grade distribution of small courses and that of large courses—whereas roughly 40 percent of students in students in large courses received A-range grades last year, about 60 percent of students in small courses received equivalent grades.

According to Buell, the close relationships formed between students and Faculty in small class settings can make objective grading more difficult.

“The closer faculty-student working relation to which a small course conduces can result in professors judging students more on best performance or on promise relative to overall performance,” Buell said.

But Buell and other Faculty members argue that higher grades in small courses may also result from other factors than grade inflation.

“I think the issue of small group instruction is one that encourages students to perform better,” Thomas said. “Students try harder and may attend classes more regularly, Faculty work more closely with students, and that helps to bring out better work,” he said.