Academy Report Reveals Grade Inflation Nationwide

A report released today by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences may help to shed new light on the current discussion of grade inflation and grading policies at Harvard.

The report, entitled “Evaluation and the Academy: Are We Doing the Right Thing?” provides empirical evidence that grade and evaluation inflation pervades universities nationwide.

The report was co-authored by former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Henry Rosovsky and Matthew Hartley, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

Dean for Undergraduate Education Susan G. Pedersen ’81-’82 said she had found the report “helpful” and that she will include it in the materials her office submits to the subcommittee of the Educational Policy Committee that is currently considering the issue.

Rosovsky said yesterday that he and his colleagues set out to answer three questions: “What are the facts, what are the causes that explain the facts, and is there anything that needs to be done?”

Analyzing changes in SAT scores and increases in remedial education nationwide, Rosovsky and Hartley conclude that though grade point averages have steadily risen over the past four decades, student work has not improved enough to justify such growth.

The result of grade inflation, the authors argue, is that professors use a narrow range of grades and consequently do not give students accurate feedback about the quality of their work.

If current trends are allowed to continue, “compression in grades will create a system of grades in which A’s predominate and in which letters [of recommendation] consist primarily of praise. Meaningful distinctions will have disappeared,” according to the report.

The authors assert that a number of factors, including universities’ response to the Vietnam War and the campus turmoil of the 1960s. The rise of the concept of “student as consumer” in the 1980s, when students and parents began to see education as a product and grades as indicative of its quality, also contributed to grade inflation.

Student evaluations play a role in grade inflation as well, according to the report, since professors water down content and feel pressured to grade higher in order to earn better evaluations.

The authors deny, however, that increasing numbers of minority students attending college has contributed to the rise of average grades, an argument that has been made by Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield.

Rosovsky and Hartley argue policy changes are necessary to ensure the future quality of the education offered by the nation’s universities.

“Simply to accept the status quo is not acceptable professional conduct,” the report concludes.

Among the recommendations for combatting grade inflation, the authors propose establishing tangible and consistent standards for faculty, formulating alternative grading systems, and establishing a standard distribution curve in each class to act as a measure, among other suggestions.

Rosovsky said he undertook this project to provide an empircal basis for recent nationwide debate about grade inflation.

“What prompted me was the fact that it seemed to me a lot of people were talking about it without any real facts or study, just on basis of their general feelings. I wanted to understand the issue myself, and other people were likeminded,” he said yesterday.

The advisory committee that worked with Rosovsky and Hartley on the report included several academics affiliated with Harvard, including Visiting Fellow at the Center for Population and Development Studies Sissela Bok, Starch Reserach Professor of Psychology Jerome Kagan, Beneficial Professor of Law Charles Fried and Dean K. Whitla, lecturer at the Graduate School of Education.

The report was part of a year-long project conducted under the American Academy’s Social Policy and Education program, according to the Academy’s Public Information Coordinator Suzanne Morse.

—Staff writer Kate L. Rakoczy can be reached at rakoczy@fas.harvard.edu.