A new report by an Educational Policy Committee (EPC) subcommittee, suggesting several methods to address grade inflation, represents the beginning of a constructive dialogue on this critical issue. Unfortunately, almost all of the committee’s recommendations would be ineffective in fighting Harvard’s inflated grades, and some of the ideas would in fact diminish the quality of education that Harvard currently provides.
The report first suggests reducing Harvard’s current 15-point grading scale to an 8-point scale, eliminating many of the lower grades. The EPC argues that eliminating the grades of C-minus, D-plus and D-minus would clarify the meaning of those that remain. But as the committee itself points out, “the number of all D and C range grades awarded combined has been lower than the number of B-minus grades awarded each year since 1995-1996.” Grades such as D-minus and D-plus may not mean much under the current system, but they are a miniscule part of the problem. The real concern lies in the vacuous meaning of grades such as B-plus, A-minus and A, which make up over 75 percent of all grades given—and which this recommendation would do nothing to clarify.
Indeed, this suggestion to reduce the number of grades seems antithetical to the purpose of grades themselves. Professors are given a range of grades as a tool to express the quality of their students’ work. The problem with grade inflation is that too many professors are giving their students the same grades; the professors are not availing themselves of the full spectrum of choices. By reducing the number of choices professors have to describe their students, professors will be less able to draw distinctions between students’ performance, which will decrease the overall accuracy of grades both to students and to others reading their transcripts. By specifically eliminating the lower grades, professors would be forced to send less informative messages to the more poorly performing students—those who could benefit most from constructive feedback on their work.
One positive step the committee proposed is the realignment of Harvard’s numerical scale to more accurately reflect the alphabetical grades professors give. If adopted, the numerical value between Harvard’s grades would be normalized (making the difference between an A and an A-minus the same as the difference between an A-minus and a B-plus). This change would bring Harvard’s numerical scale more in line with the meanings intended by professors and understood by students.
The report further suggested adding to students’ transcripts the percentage of A-range grades awarded in a course next to their grade in that course. This solution would particularly damage students by sending misleading information to those reading the transcript. Just because many students perform well in a class does not mean that their efforts should be perceived as less worthy. Some extremely advanced classes award a high percentage of As, but their students consistently produce superlative work. Harvard should be encouraging all its students to excel, not penalizing those classes that happen to have a high percentage of extraordinary students.
With respect to honors, the report presented two suggestions. The first would eliminate “honors-only” concentrations and honors tracks within concentrations, and instead force all students in a concentration to follow the same requirements. Each concentration would say whether all concentrators would be required to do a thesis and would then “apply common grade point average cuts and requirements about breadth to the pool of honors candidates recommended by concentration.” This would essentially end the current system where the concentration recommends candidates for honors and the University nearly always trusts the recommendations of the concentration. Forcing all students in a concentration to follow the same requirements—for example, forcing all government concentrators to write a thesis—creates a miserable situation that, as the report itself admits, “would likely increase the number of unsuccessful or indifferent theses.” The most common advice given to potential thesis writers is only to write if they are truly engaged and interested by the topic; it would be folly to force rising first-years to choose whether or not to enter a thesis-writing concentration so early in their college careers.
The second proposal would further de-link departmental honors from Faculty honors. This proposal, while not as extreme, would still have the unfortunate consequence of causing departmental honors recommendations not to be taken into account by the Faculty when deciding high honors. Departments are deservedly the most important influence on Faculty-wide honors awards, and if they recommend that students receive a high Latin honor, that student most often deserves it. Removing honors responsibility from the hands of able department members and giving it instead to the full Faculty or arbitrary quotas would remove honors decisions from those who know the students best and are in the best place to evaluate their work.
The Faculty should attempt to foresee the effects that changes will have on students, as they reflect upon the meaning of a Harvard education. Solutions to grade inflation are needed, but the answers will come in defining more clearly the standards that students must meet to earn an A, not changing the grading scheme to reflect artificial curves that devalue students’ performance.