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Grade Inflation Becomes an Educational Fact of College Life

By Andrew S. Chang

Gone are the days of the Harvard "gentleman's C."

"A C is a flunking grade now," says President Emeritus Derek C. Bok.

Much like inflation in the economy, grade inflation is a phenomenon that Faculty and students at the College seem to accept as an inevitable fact of life.

"In an ideal world, you probably wouldn't have it," says former Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57.

Over the last few decades, the Faculty has done little to curb grade inflation, often attributing the better marks to the increased quality of students entering Harvard in recent decades.

But continuing grade inflation has its impact on other areas--including the awarding of honors degrees and competitive fellowships--and has led administrators to think twice about the meaning of academic excellence.

"An A means less than it once did," says former Dean of Undergraduate Education Lawrence Buell. "A B means so much more that many people hate to give it, at least in the humanities."

During recent deliberations over honors recommendations for graduating students in the Department of Anthropology, outgoing Dean of Undergraduate Education David Pilbeam says he and his colleagues discovered that students' grades did not reflect their academic merit.

"We didn't really have many students we thought were truly excellent, although many of them had excellent grades," he says.

Faculty members say that the continuing inflation of grades has led to a closely related phenomenon--what they term "grade compression"--since academic marks at the College can only go up so far.

"The number of niches on the Harvard grading scale that Faculty regularly use and...students consider honorable has been shrinking," Buell says.

The major problem of grade compression is the resulting difficulty in distinguishing very good academic performance from excellent academic performance, according to Faculty members.

"We have no way of distinguishing on our grade sheet between truly exceptional and just a skin-of-your-teeth A," says James E. Davis, head tutor of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology.

"Every so often I would love to give the A+ to the exceptional student," Davis says, referring to a grade that Harvard does not permit instructors to give. "But there's no way I can reward that gradewise."

But many professors say they believe that grade inflation is limited to the middle range of the grade scale.

"I think there is a lot of B+ and A-inflation, but I don't think there is grade inflation in straight A's," says Professor of History Mark A. Kishlansky.

The former president of the University says he believes the standard for an A is rather clear.

"As Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography, I know it when I see it," Bok says.

William Wright-Swadel, director of the Office of Career Services, which manages Harvard candidates for fellowships, says that increased grades has made competition for prized fellowships "very stiff."

"We see more people who look like the kind of people you would want to award," he says, noting that students now have better grades along with solid performance in extracurriculars.

Grade Disparity?

College administrators all agree that average grades in the pure sciences are lower than average grades in the social sciences and humanities.

But professors have differing opinions about the cause of the disparity, and the extent to which it reflects differences in standards among departments.

Professors in the humanities are quick to point out that the science concentrations were largely responsible for the recent flood of summa cum laude degrees, leading to stricter policies across all departments for making degree recommendations this year (See story, page B-13).

"The great summa crisis last year was in the sciences," Kishlansky says.

Among many students, there is a perception that it is more difficult to receive good marks in science classes.

"Students say that we work them harder for their good grades than the other departments," Davis says.

And students say that such disparities make it difficult to compare science and non-science students, which is often necessary to determine some of the most prized academic awards.

"It becomes very difficult, especially when all these people are thrown in the same pool as far as fellowships are concerned, to adequately determine the real quality of the [students'] work," says Michael E. Ginsberg '97, who is a Crimson editor.

Buell, who is the Marquand professor of English, agrees that science classes generally impose greater requirements on students than non-science classes.

"The commitment that's required--at least of lab courses--in the sciences for the same credit is just greater," he says.

Buell also attributes the disparity to other factors, including the differing motivations of students taking science and non-science classes.

"There are more students taking science courses as semi-captives, and not seeing science as a vocation," he says.

Buell adds that quantitative courses "open a kind of scale of performance ability between the top and the bottom."

"A standard image of that is the math genius. That has no counterpart in the humanities. If you're self-identified as not a math genius," then it is difficult to succeed, he says.

Other professors contend that the gap between science and non-science grades has leveled off.

According to Pilbeam and Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education Jeffrey Wolcowitz, the current disparity in grades between science and non-science courses appeared about 10 years ago, but since then, grades have "inflated more or less in parallel."

Indeed, Kishlansky contends that "grade inflation has struck everyone equally."

Causes of Grade Inflation

Different professors have theories about the sources of grade inflation as diverse as Harvard's student body itself.

Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. '53 sparked controversy four years ago when he suggested in Harvard Magazine that grade inflation was linked to the institution of affirmative action in 1969.

Pilbeam attributes grade inflation to increased "fraternization" between the Faculty and students.

"The change in the dynamic between the generations is not a bad thing, but it doesn't come unencumbered," Pilbeam says.

Pilbeam says the problem is "more likely to happen in small classes or tutorials."

"We want professors to be able to say to a student in a one-on-one tutorial, 'Even though you've shown up every week, and done all the reading and had nice conversations, you can still get a B-,'" he says.

Reisinger Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures William M. Todd III, who will become dean of undergraduate education next month, says he believes that students today have opportunities to produce higher quality coursework.

"Forgive me for thinking that [grade inflation] isn't necessarily a bad thing," Todd says. "What's different between now and 30 years ago is that we work much better with students now, and we give assignments on which it is possible to do better work."

Todd says that many assignments in today's curriculum give students the opportunity to revise their work. He cites the growing transition from formal final exams to "take-home" exams, greater opportunities to review paper topics and drafts with instructors and improvements in technology as examples.

"Being able to whip up all those drafts [with word-processing technology] makes a big difference," he says (See story, page B-9).

Whether or not the increasing quality of the student body is responsible for the College's grade inflation is one of the most controversial questions that Faculty members and administrators have tried to answer in recent years.

"There's institutional research to support the premise that much, perhaps 30 to 40 percent, of grade inflation can be ascribed to the stronger credentials of our incoming students," Buell says. "It's not the same corral of thoroughbreds we're dealing with."

Pilbeam downplays that argument.

"There's no conceivable way that the amount of grade inflation is explained by a change in the quality of the student body--it's a small piece of the argument," he says.

Proposals for Action

Apart from sporadic discussions of the issue over the past 20 years in bodies such as the Faculty Council and the Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE), the Faculty has been reluctant to take action to curb grade inflation.

Part of the problem, Faculty administrators say, is that grade inflation simply is not a major priority.

"It should not be regarded as a top priority issue in education," Buell says.

Adds Pilbeam, "I haven't spent many hours this year worrying about it."

Faculty members also say that it is difficult to guarantee that any proposal short of a mandate will create uniform grades.

"It's hard to figure out what to do about [grade inflation]," Wolcowitz says.

Buell says he supported a recent proposal in the Educational Policy Committee to include more information about classes on transcripts--including course's size and mean grade--as a way of signalling publicly that we're prepared to acknowledge just what our grades do mean."

Dartmouth and Columbia have passed similar proposals, according to Wolcowitz. Dartmouth will graduate its first class with the revised transcript next year.

Wolcowitz says he is not in favor of implementing a transcript makeover until he sees the outcome of the changes at Dartmouth and Columbia.

"We would be wise at this point to watch and see because the answer is close at hand," he says.

The CUE recommended last spring to the Faculty Council that Harvard's grading system become "linearized," closing the gap between an A- and a B+. Currently, an A- is worth 14 points, and a B+ is worth 12 points on the 15-point grading point average scale. But the council never passed such a proposal.

This proposal was also debated in 1976 by the CUE, but saw no action.

Pilbeam says he would like to see more "ways to put distance between grades."

"You could, say, do away with plusses and minuses," says Pilbeam. Brown University already has such a system.

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