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'A's Still Abound 4.0 Years Later

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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