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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

'A's Still Abound 4.0 Years Later

Despite a cap on honor designations, efforts to combat grade inflation have been all but dropped

By Robin M. Peguero, Crimson Staff Writer

When the members of this year’s graduating class were still high school seniors, their college of choice was being dubbed “the laughingstock of the Ivy League” by the national media for handing out an exorbitant amount of A-range grades and awarding over 90 percent of its graduates Latin honors. The Harvard ‘B+’ was the new ‘gentlemen’s C,’ it seemed, which detractors said undercut the very value of the Harvard transcript.

The College reacted to the flurry of media criticism in 2001 by instituting a Latin honors cutoff of 60 percent and switching from its old 15-point scale to the more conventional 4.0 scale.

But four years later, nearly half of Harvard grades are still within the A-range. And unlike before, when the College faced both national and in-house scrutiny for grade inflation, no one seems to be talking about it.

This year’s contentious discussion of University President Lawrence H. Summers’ leadership and the ongoing Harvard College Curricular Review have preoccupied the Faculty, pushing a once hot-button issue to the back burner.

As the first graduating class to face the cuts in Latin honors, the Class of 2005 has seen the percentage of ‘A’ and ‘A-’ grades steadily return to former inflated levels.

A mere 15 years before the controversy, A-range marks constituted only one-third of the total. Last year’s A-range grades represented 48.3 percent of the grades distributed, an insignificant drop from the 48.7 percent in 2000-2001 that brought the College under fire.

Though the College did not institute a formal quota system, grade deflation supporters had claimed victory when the number of A-range marks dropped nearly 2 percent in 2001-2002.

“It is not legislation that moves the Faculty...it is the atmosphere raised by the issue,” Roderick L. MacFarquhar, then-chair of the government department, said to The Crimson.

But with that “atmosphere” and awareness now dissipated, the tightening of grading practices among professors in the Class of 2005’s freshman year seems to have disappeared.

The College administration claims that the issue is still on the table.

“The mean grade in the College has been fairly flat for about seven years now,” Assistant Dean of the College John T. O’Keefe writes in an e-mail. “Faculty members continue to be concerned about grade compression, and so I think the efforts to support discussion of these issues will continue into the future, even if other issues—such as various aspects of the curricular review—have been more in the news during the past year.”

But without the intense media attention of previous years, the administration seems to lack the impetus for creating a policy directed at curbing grade inflation.

CAPPING HONORS AT HOME

Much of the public outcry over grading practices stemmed from the fact that a staggering 91 percent of Harvard students graduated with Latin honors in 2001, compared to 51 percent of Yale graduates and 44 percent of Princeton graduates of the same year.

The college-wide reduction in summa, magna, and cum honors means that the three distinctions will be awarded to 60 percent of the class, leaving 40 percent with no Latin honor on their diploma. This hard line cutoff will not affect English honors, which concentrations can still award to those who fall below the cutoff line for Latin honors.

But it seems the move has done little to encourage concentration heads to reconsider what it means to be honors-worthy.

With only a few exceptions, concentrations have stuck to their old habits, recommending just as many students for honors as in past years. While a recommendation easily translated to a Latin designation in the past, there is no longer any such guarantee.

The physics concentration is recommending a large number of students—86 percent of its seniors—for honors, according to Howard Georgi ’68, director of undergraduate studies in physics.

And though the policy change has made the “honors-only” concentration something of a misnomer, some of these concentrations are still maintaining—or even increasing—the number of recommendations they make.

“We have a tremendous class this year and we’re actually recommending more students for Latin honors,” says Anya Bernstein, director of undergraduate studies for social studies.

Social Studies has recommended 89 out of the 90 graduating seniors in the concentration for some form of honors—73 percent of those for either of the two highest honors, summa or magna, according to Bernstein.

“Our understanding is that this is the College saving us from ourselves and imposing a cap on the number of honors being given out College-wide,” Bernstein says. “We really don’t expect to be doing anything differently.”

And Bernstein sees nothing wrong with sticking to the old pattern of recommendation. She says that she thinks social studies concentrators—since they must write theses—are stronger candidates on the whole, a justification for recommending all but one of her students for honors.

But the once honors-only concentration will face unprecedented rejection this year. The Dean’s Office has said, according to Bernstein, that about one-third of social studies students will likely be denied any Latin honor.

Out of all the honors candidates in the graduating class, GPA will be the factor that determines the cutoff points. The top 5 percent of recommended students will be awarded summa, the next 15 percent awarded magna, and the next 30 percent awarded cum. The College has allotted that an additional 10 percent of the class may receive honors due to their high GPAs, even without receiving a departmental recommendation.

Because the new policy increases the competition for students vying for top spots, students are opting out of the traditional thesis-writing route towards receiving honors.

“The one interesting trend that we noticed was that we think that more of our students decided to [go for] non-thesis honors, calculating that whatever the department did, the number of magnas was going to be cut at the College level,” says Elisa New, director of undergraduate studies for English and American Literature and Language. “Unless they really wanted to write a thesis, they may as well take two courses which would make them eligible for cum either way.”

Government concentrator T. Sean McKean ’05, who recently learned he is receiving some form of Latin honors, says the prospect of strong competition within his department nearly discouraged him from writing a thesis.

“In the Government Department, the people who are writing a thesis are good students—it made me kind of consider ‘is this worth it?’” says McKean, who ended up writing a thesis. “If you’re right on the cusp there, it’s really difficult to get it, and all that hard work makes it a lot less appealing.”

Many students still express the sentiment that the thesis-writing process is arduous and should guarantee a Latin flourish.

For students like Leyla R. Bravo ’05, the fact that it doesn’t has been discouraging.

“It’s frustrating—and appalling, to be honest—because I think a lot of people here have worked more than enough to get some sort of honors,” says Bravo. “It was a great experience—it’s frustrating now that I might not get anything for it.”

THE PRINCETON EXPERIMENT

While the graduating Class of 2005 has been the guinea pig for the College’s caps on honors, they have been spared concrete policies mandating a less skewed distribution of grades.

But Princeton seniors have not been so lucky.

Last spring, in the first move by a top-tier university to address grade inflation, Princeton faculty approved plans for a non-binding 35 percent cap on the number of A-level grades given within departments.

But the bold initiative, which went into effect last fall, is less of a restriction than a plea.

“Caps is not the right word, nor is quota—the language we use is ‘expectation,’” says Princeton Associate Dean of the College Hank Dobin. “The expectation is no more than 35 percent of grades in courses will be in the A-range and that no more than 55 percent on independent work—that means junior papers and senior theses—[will be] in the A-range.”

The onus is entirely on the faculty within individual departments to attempt to meet these expectations.

Grades are not out yet, but Princeton’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG) President emeritus Matthew J. Margolin—an opponent of the cap—says the policy’s first year has already led to counterproductive consequences.

“I have witnessed students who jump around from one precept—our small [teaching assistant-led] class—to another in order to find the one with the most freshmen because they are concerned about the competition for A grades,” Margolin writes in an e-mail. “I have witnessed people who are more stressed about their theses and junior independent work. I have witnessed people who are unwilling to share notes about a class because of the need to maintain their own standing within the class given the very specific number of ‘A’ grades.”

While professors are given some leeway to award more ‘A’ grades than the set 35 percent, they are required to account for the breach at a meeting and in writing.

Margolin says he doubts that teaching assistants, who are responsible for most undergraduates’ grades, would hassle their superiors simply to give a deserving student an ‘A.’

Dobin says the new measure is an attempt to return to traditional standards.

“We have said that the 35 percent range resembles the percentages that were given at Princeton even as early as 1990,” he says.

But Margolin says the rationale for grade deflation—that it will cause students to work harder and improve the quality of their education—is suspect.

“The administration suggests that a student who does not receive accurate (but inflated) grades cannot grow intellectually,” Margolin writes. “Lower grading without better discussion of a student’s work will not achieve the aforementioned goal of better education.”

DEFLATING HOPES

As the first class to experience all the effects of the grading controversy graduates, the debate surrounding grade inflation has all but died down, and Faculty discussion of methods to rein in escalating percentages of ‘A’ grades has been repeatedly postponed.

And even at the height of the controversy four years ago, no formal measures were instituted.

During an Adams House study break last fall, Summers jokingly suggested instituting A-pluses and A-plus-pluses as a way to ameliorate a system where two grades—‘A’ and ‘A-minus’—measure the top half of students and seven grades measure the bottom half.

But though Summers still holds to his view that grade inflation needs to be addressed, he also acknowledges that a fair capping or curving scheme may not exist.

“I do think the compression is a problem, and the fact that we have so many more levels of distinction within the lowest quarter of students than we do within the top half of students is something that is problematic,” says Summers. “On the other hand, since courses differ in their degree of difficulty, in what they expect of students, in the quality of students who take them—I think it’s very difficult.”

But there is one undisputed difference between two realms of academia. The mean grade for humanities courses is higher than that in the natural sciences, according to O’Keefe. And with the new honors GPA cutoff applying across the board, science concentrators may be at a disadvantage when Latin honors are handed out.

“I guess that’s something that we haven’t really discussed,” says Robert A. Lue, executive director of undergraduate education in Molecular and Cellular Biology. “If we pursue the matter of a strict GPA cap, there may have to be some sort of normalization across the different fields or concentrations in terms of fairness. We’re going to have to look at that—science concentrators can be at a disadvantage if it’s strictly numerical and nothing else.”

Whether humanities concentrators have the upper hand, only the numbers for this year’s graduating class will tell.

“[It] is a completely legitimate concern if, A, the humanities concentrators have higher grades and B, have higher grades but aren’t doing as much quality work,” former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 says. But he questions whether fighting grade inflation is even a worthy cause. After all, the issue is nothing new.

“It took exactly eight years between when letter grades were [first] used at Harvard and the first time the Faculty bemoaned that the standards had slipped,” Lewis says. “Every decade between the 1890s and the current decade, I have found reports of the Faculty or the president in which one or the other has said, either that it is a terrible thing that grades were rising or that it was wonderful thing that grades were rising because it proved that the students were getting smarter.”

And some suggest that discussion of evaluation practices is a distraction from the crucial questions concerning the quality of the Harvard undergraduate education.

At the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), a pre-collegiate organization that keeps tabs on issues that affect top-tier schools to which many prep schools send their students, grade inflation at the university level is not a primary concern.

“If the purpose is to create winners and losers—isn’t it possible that Harvard undergrads do exceptional work?” says NAIS President Patrick F. Bassett. “It’s hard to measure: are the students smarter? The entire controversy begs a larger question, is the quality of teaching excellent? Is the quality of student scholarship [better]? What’s frankly important is, ‘What’s the purpose of the education itself?’”

And Faculty dissenters, such as Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies Diana L. Eck, may prove to be roadblocks in any campus-wide move to keep ‘A’ grades in check. Eck told The Crimson last spring that she gave nearly half of her fall religion tutorial students ‘A’s because they deserved them.

In 2003, Baird Professor of History Mark A. Kishlansky told The Crimson that professors aren’t used to a framework where grades are much lower. “I don’t see how they could much go down,” he said. “We are not in the business of giving ‘C’s.”

­—Staff writer Robin M. Peguero can be reached at peguero@fas.harvard.edu.

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