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At my high school’s graduation ceremony, the headmaster used to introduce the valedictorian with a string of academic accomplishments, the most shocking of which was always how many A-pluses that top student had received during the past four years. A-pluses were the “white whale” of the grading system, achievable only through a seemingly untraceable elixir of grinding work, teacher-schmoozing ability, and luck. At Harvard, an A—our highest grade—doesn’t yield that degree of respect, probably because there is a perception that we achieve quite a lot of them: In 2007, over half of Harvard grades were As or A-minuses, as reported by former Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71.
That Harvard has a grade inflation problem is news to no one. What is surprising, though, is that this issue has persisted despite its acknowledgment by students, professors, and the media. This may be because the obvious solution—grade deflation—is both unpalatable and difficult to implement. Instead, a more positive way to combat grade inflation and reward students for exemplary academic work would be to raise the grading scale to include A-pluses.
Grade deflation is tricky to execute because it is by nature a negative academic move. In 2004, Princeton officially implemented a grade-deflation policy intending that As would make up only 35 percent of the grades given out in each department. However, five years later in the 2008-2009 academic year, As still made up 39.7 percent of all grades—and even this relatively high number was considered a major accomplishment. This situation reflects complications that grade deflation encounters at the individual level. Even if a grade-deflation policy were announced, high-achieving Harvard students would expect the same grades from before the policy shift. This expectation would inevitably fail and lead to disappointment throughout the student body. Lowering students’ grades would also meet reluctance from course leaders, who (for the most part) want students to feel they have succeeded. Students, teaching fellows, professors, and administrators do not want such a confrontation, so grade deflation is a hard decision even in the best of times.
Given this reality, the idea of As should be welcomed as a positive and easier path. The central issue with the glut of As and A-minuses currently awarded by the college is not that they make students’ GPAs too high, but that they make their GPAs too similar. Grades lose meaning when everyone gets the same ones, whether they are As or Cs. Extending the GPA scale higher to 4.3 would differentiate grades a substantial amount and accomplish much of what grade deflation would.
Additionally—on a more idealistic note—introducing A-pluses in the grading system would properly reward top students for their exemplary work. Right now, both a 98 percent and 93 average still merit the same letter grade, though achieving the former is markedly harder and reflects a much deeper understanding of the course material. It is unfair for students to be penalized for being a few points below the A cutoff and yet not be rewarded for being above this cutoff, and we already tacitly acknowledge this by having the full range of Bs.
Of course, there is always the risk that TFs and professors would simply use this opportunity to move the grading scale up and give out more A-pluses and As. Instituting A-pluses will be ineffective if it is not accompanied by grading discipline on the part of course leaders. However, this effort, to actually preserve the way they grade, seems easier than any other method of grade differentiation. In any case, something must be done, because, eight years after The Boston Globe declared our grading system the “laughingstock of the Ivy League,” we haven’t progressed very far. The point of grades should be to emphasize relative, not absolute, achievement. To this end, if it is easier to create A-pluses than it is to emphasize B-minuses, then that seems like the logical step.
Anita J Joseph ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a sophomore in Leverett House.
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