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Harvard College grades have risen significantly in the past 20 years, per a newly released report presented at the first Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting of the academic year Tuesday afternoon.
The report found that the percentage of A-range grades given to college students in the 2020-21 academic year was 79 percent, compared to 60 percent a decade earlier. Mean grades on a four-point scale were 3.80 in the 2020-21 academic year, up from 3.41 in 2002-03.
The proportion of A-range grades given in the 2020-21 academic year varied significantly by division: 73 percent in the Arts and Humanities, 65 percent in both the Sciences and Social Sciences, and 60 percent in courses at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Dean of Undergraduate Education Amanda Claybaugh and Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana presented the report, released late last week and compiled by members of the Office of Undergraduate Education and the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning.
In the meeting, Claybaugh said that the “report establishes we have a problem — or rather, we have two: the intertwined problems of grade inflation and compression.”
Per the report, grade compression — or grades concentrating at the higher end of the scale — provides less information about students’ relative success in courses and complicates selection processes for prizes, fellowships, or induction into Phi Beta Kappa, which rely heavily on students’ grade point averages.
As a result, students rely on letters of recommendation and extracurriculars to distinguish themselves, which Claybaugh in the meeting called “shadow systems of distinction.”
“There is a sense that giving a wider range of grades would give students better information about their performance, and it would give us better information about where they are ranked against other students,” Claybaugh said in an interview after the meeting.
Claybaugh said that the evidence for the existence of grade inflation was less clear, as many student grades are well-deserved and faculty have increasingly focused on learning objectives.
Nonetheless, she said it seems, as one faculty member put it, external “market forces” are influencing grading, particularly as faculty rely on positive course evaluations from students for professional advancement, she said in the interview.
The OUE and the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning will also rely less on quantitative course evaluations for teaching awards, the report stated, recommending the FAS review the role of evaluations in decisions to promote or grant tenure to faculty and noting the “direct correlation between expected grades and Q ratings.”
But it cautioned against efforts at other institutions to combat grade compression, such as Princeton University’s since-repealed policy of limiting the proportion of As to 35 percent and Cornell University’s policy of internally publishing each course’s median grade on students’ transcripts. Such policies, the report stated, “tend to yield unintended consequences.”
Claybaugh said she would defer to the full faculty to decide whether or not to implement concrete reforms to Harvard’s grading policies, but said she would be “interested in exploring” changes “that put more information on the transcript that put the grade in context.”
In the meeting, faculty discussed a wide range of options to tackle rising grades.
During the meeting, Classics Department chair David F. Elmer ’98 said grading “contributes tremendously to the anxiety” students face, but added that he thinks they “deserve to be fairly evaluated in a way that reflects their experience in the classroom.”
Annabel L. Kim, a professor of Romance Languages and Literatures, suggested the “abolition of grading,” replacing the current system entirely with “narrative-based” grading systems.
Kim pointed out that faculty already have to provide such evaluations in letters of recommendation.
“Why not lean into it by abolishing grades,” she said.
Some faculty also raised the issue of grading and artificial intelligence.
Christopher W. Stubbs, the dean of the Sciences division, said the rise of artificial intelligence “offers a surreal opportunity” to address challenges in evaluating students.
Claybaugh said the report and the discussion would compel faculty to reexamine their grading practices, hopefully creating a downward pressure on grading. Still, the faculty emerged without clear next steps, she said.
“We’re at a stage of generating thinking about it, rather than taking concrete steps,” Claybaugh said.
Faculty also unanimously approved an amendment to cross-registration policy that would lift the eight-credit cap on cross-registration and dictate that cross-registered courses would not count towards students’ GPAs.
Hoekstra announced at Tuesday’s meeting that she was forming an advisory committee to review the format of future faculty meetings, noting that it was historic that she as FAS dean — instead of University President Claudine Gay — was chairing the meeting.
Hoekstra also announced the Faculty Council voted unanimously on Sept. 20 to expel an undergraduate who was found to have repeatedly violated the Faculty Code of Conduct — the most severe disciplinary action for undergraduates. FAS spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo declined to comment on the expulsion.
Hoekstra also informed the faculty that the University is engaged in an ongoing review of its admissions policies in the wake of the Supreme Court’s summer decision radically curtailing the use of race in college admissions.
The meeting also featured updates from administrators on the implementation of previous-term course registration and an update on campus health by Harvard University Health Services Executive Director Giang T. Nguyen.
—Staff writer Rahem D. Hamid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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