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“Getting in” to Harvard is the hard part, succeeding in classes is easy, or so the lore goes — and a report presented to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences revealing staggering grade inflation and grade compression rates at the College may be the most damning evidence of this yet.
While faculty are now raising concerns in response to this report — which shows that 79 percent of grades given to students at the College in the 2020-2021 academic year were in the A-range — our Board does not find these statistics particularly concerning, or even surprising. In fact, contrary to its bogeyman-esque portrayal by many University leaders, grade inflation might even be a good thing.
To begin, grade inflation (and subsequent grade compression) likely stems from the compounding effect of Harvard admitting class after class of high-achieving students. We’d probably be concerned if students who were admitted partly because of their increasingly competitive academic performance in high school were suddenly unable to attain similar levels of success in college.
Trying to counteract grade compression by forcing a normal distribution of grades onto a student body that is inclined to be high-achieving feels pointless. We fear that the introduction of artificial disinflation might disproportionately harm students who came from poorly resourced schools, and could also exacerbate stress and severely harm students’ mental health.
Combating grade inflation with tougher curves could also increase pressure on students who have found a balance between academics and extracurriculars in college. We value the robust club culture on our campus, and believe that the attainability of an A-range grade gives students the confidence to spend meaningful time on activities outside of their studies. Rather than constraining themselves to academics, students are able to invest in spaces that promise pre-professional opportunities or the exchange of ideas amongst peers.
Still, while we feel Harvard’s grade inflation may be at least partially warranted, we value the transparent information the FAS report offers — and we’re glad it opens the conversation about collective misconceptions in our understanding of grades.
For example, the report cites grade compression as problematic because it diminishes the value of letter grades as a means for comparison. We dispute this characterization of a grade’s function: In a pool of highly qualified students, grades are more realistically a measure of competency than a useful tool to distinguish talent.
The difference between a 90.0 and an 89 – an A- and a B – is numerically minute, but in the mind of a student who has deep-rooted beliefs about the importance and value of a pristine GPA, that insignificant numerical difference is blown out of proportion. This feeds into a culture of perfectionism, and thus, leads students to fixate on minute assignment details over conceptual mastery of their classes.
Overhauling this culture won’t occur through tightening the grading scale. We need radical changes in our grading systems and campus culture that more fully reflect our pedagogical goals and do not perpetuate arbitrary numbers games.
Loosening grading scales to incentivize promotion over improvement or adopting a universal pass/fail model could make grades a true measure of competency; those who want to compare students could rely on qualitative judgements like recommendation letters instead. Such changes would enable students to take academic risks and learn content in ways that are productive and boost knowledge retention without the fear of ruining their GPAs.
In restructuring our understanding of grades to be competence- rather than competition-based, we might all come to see grade inflation as a good thing. If increasing numbers of students are attaining A-level competency in a given subject, such a trend should be celebrated — not artificially punctured.
All in all, we’re not swayed by the fearmongering about grade inflation or draconian proposals for deflation. Until we can unlearn certain beliefs about grades, or perhaps restructure grading as a deliberate function of competency, not comparison, we find it hard to condemn such a trend.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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