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Faculty Agree Grade Inflation Troubling

By Kate L. Rakoczy, Crimson Staff Writer

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.

The Next Step

The EPC report recognized that grade inflation at Harvard is a “serious problem.” Now the Faculty must decide how this problem will be addressed.

Any initiative will come out of departmental discussions that will extend until Feb. 1.

However the department chairs contacted yesterday already agreed that an attempt to construct a Faculty-wide or even department-wide grading policy would be a mistake.

“I don’t think we should have a rigid formula,” Grindlay said. “If everyone in a particular class, whether it be six or 60, is doing superb work, then it should be duly noted.”

Buell and Thomas both said they were in favor of instituting a policy similar to that employed by Dartmouth College, where two grades are listed beside each course on a student’s transcript—the grade the student earned in the class and the median grade for the class.

Thomas said he would be in favor of employing such a system at Harvard because it would give a more concrete value to the grades distributed by Harvard Faculty members.

“A graduate school or an employer is entitled to know what an individual grade in an individual courses means, and such a system would provide that information,” Thomas said.

For Buell, Harvard’s problem centers around these grading discrepancies rather than the general upward trend of all undergraduate grades.

“Inequality in grading practices strikes me as a more serious problem than grade inflation per se,” Buell said. “Surely problems of fairness ought to loom larger than problems having to do with possible excess of generosity.”

Buell also said that the discussion on combating grade inflation should not obscure the need to address the quality of undergraduate education at Harvard.

“Overall there are certainly more serious and important issues of undergraduate educational policy than this—issues having to do with the educational quality as against measurement,” he said.

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

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