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Abolish Harvard's Grading System


By Anna-marie L. Tabor

Crusaders against grade inflation complain that Harvard's system has lost its evaluative power. Too many students earn Bs and As, they say, while too few receive the lower grades needed to legitimize the system. They have proposed solutions ranging from harsher curves within classes to a revamping of the 15-point scale. Yet no one has suggested the most obvious alternative. If grades fail to measure students' abilities and effort, why bother giving them at all?

Straightforward answers to difficult problems often sound outlandishly simple, and this proposal is no exception. Grades play such significant roles in the academic community and beyond that it is difficult to imagine life without them. Such a tried and tested system cannot be dismissed without careful consideration of why it has endured so long. So what are grades supposed to accomplish, anyway?

On a most basic level, they should provide a relatively objective manner of distinguishing between students of different intellectual abilities. Grades give graduate schools and potential employers an extra factor to consider when judging a student's potential for future success. They also enable instructors to cull those students who would benefit from either extra help or an extra challenge.

Likewise, students themselves use grades to gage their abilities. The first-year who enters Harvard as, say, an aspiring biologist might choose an alternative field of concentration after earning consistently low grades in the field. We could view this as unfortunate; after all, it takes time to learn the knack of a new field. What a waste for an enthusiastic mind to turn sour due to one poor grade.

On the other hand, self-revelation never is all bad. Aspiring biologists who would make better sociologists or anthopologists probably would be happier the sooner they find this out. Grading provides students with a semi-objective, outside opinion to help them decide which fields to pursue and which to leave to others.

This function, like those enumerated above, hinges on grading's motivational power. Grades provide a consistent system of comparison only when everyone works as hard as possible to demonstrate their capabilities. Harvard students are keenly aware that grades communicate their abilities to other people. For most, the ideal transcript entices hard work even if the student's dedication to schoolwork would be low otherwise.

Those self-driven souls who consider their academic record only so far as it displays personal growth also can use grades to evaluate their development. The As, Bs, pluses and minuses serve as benchmarks in their competition against past performance.

However, grades serve these purposes only when the system operates effectively. According to those railing against inflation, grades have lost their ability to distinguish between students of varying abilities. It follows that neither employers, nor graduate schools, nor students themselves can use grades to judge their performances. Some argue that the narrowing range reduces grades' motivational value as well.

So what would happen if we abolished course grades altogether? Assume that instructors would continue to mark tests and assignments, but at the end of a course, students would receive only a "Pass" or a "Fail." Those who fail a predetermined number of courses would get kicked out. Others would graduate with Harvard degrees attesting to their abilities and hard work.

Some might argue that without a transcript to prove their college success, students would lose an edge after graduation. But if grade inflation truly is a problem now, Harvardians' transcripts already look alike.

To compensate for the current grading system's weaknesses, factors such as extra-curricular activities, academic honors and work experience differentiate graduates from one another. They would continue in this role if the College did away with grades altogether.

Admittedly, students who concentrate their efforts on academics would have a more difficult time proving their excellence without letter grades. However, because only the final course grade would be pass-fail, instructors could identify their most brilliant students by performances on tests and assignments. When the time came for these students to apply for jobs and graduate schools, they could ask for recommendations from those instructors familiar with their work. Likewise, instructors could identify floundering students needing extra help by nothing who performs poorly.

All this gives a lot of responsibility to the the teachers. Unfortunately, this most likely would place gregarious students and students in smaller departments at an advantage. Those who are friendly with their instructors would obtain both more insightful recommendations and more attention to their academic difficulties. But this drawback results from the impersonality of a big university, not the pass-fail concept. Students get lost in the academic jungle under the current system, too.

Luckily, Harvard has been blessed with a large number of enthusiastic instructors who already go out of their way to become familiar with students' abilities. Surely they would not mind trying a little harder under a new system. Less involved professors might not make the necessary extra effort, but they would be the exception rather than the rule. And frankly, instructors who are not concerned with their students should not teach in the first place.

Another offshoot of within-course grades is that students still could gain a sense of where their talents lie. However, they would not have to worry about initial difficulties bringing down their GPAs. This would increase academic experimentation and foster creativity.

The most substantive argument against a pass-fail system is that students would stop working hard if they knew no one else could tell whether they had done A or B, or C level work. This concern would be especially great during the new system's implementation. Believing their late-night study orgies finished forever, students would go positively wild--and probably a little bit lazy, too.

The College could remedy this problem at least partly by providing a very credible threat that slackers would be asked to leave. If the "fail" status is made equivalent to a C or C- and the number of "fails" necessary for expulsion is relatively low, fear would keep students working hard.

Even without this threat, students initial euphoria would die with the realization that the change in grading would not effect post-graduation prospects. Employers and graduate schools would continue to compare applicants against each other, so students still would strive to distingish themselves. But instead of receiving a bunch of letter grades for their efforts, they would have a list of extra-curricular and academic distinctions.

The most significant academic distinction of all would be their degree. For if mother Harvard's educational standards are as outstanding as their reputation, her diploma should embody an unwavering confidence in the graduate, making more specific details unnecessary and even inappropriate.

In reality, of course, such details are both helpful and necessary. Students are not all alike, nor are their performances consistent through college. In theory, letter grades should gage differences between them and help them recognize their growth over time.

But as the system has lost its power, other evaluative mechanisms have filled its place. So why spend the time, effort, and money necessary to compute GPAs? Why not rely on the new mechanisms of differentiation that already work so well?

The answer lies in tradition. The abolition of grades would demand a gargantuan mental shift throughout the college. It is highly unlikely that such a radical solution to grade inflation will be accepted in the near future, if ever.

Still, the problem of grade inflation is so confounding that it may prove useful to keep the most basic answer in mind.

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