Grade inflation debate extends beyond Ivies

While the debate about grade inflation continues at Harvard University, a report released Feb.1 by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences may extend that debate to universities across the nation, including Yale.

The 30-page report, entitled “Evaluation and the Academy: Are We Doing the Right Thing?” examines the causes of grade inflation and demonstrates, through empirical evidence, that grade inflation is a national phenomenon. In addition, the report addresses letters of recommendation and how such letters are no longer an accurate evaluation of a student.

Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead, who said he has not yet read the report, said the University has no plans to formally discuss or evaluate grading policies at Yale. In contrast, Harvard recently released an official report on its grading policies and is considering a significant reduction in the number of honors degrees it awards.

The report, co-authored by Harvard professor Henry Rosovsky and University of Pennsylvania professor Matthew Hartley, analyzes trends in SAT scores and grade point averages over the last 40 years to illustrate that the national increase in average GPAs has not been accompanied by a rise in quality of student academic work.

Rosovsky said he wanted to consolidate the numerous pieces of evidence he had gathered from already-published literature on grade inflation and issue a coherent and objective document on which discussions could be based.

“I think that there are a lot of controversial issues in academia that are talked about by many different people who have not examined the evidence or underlying issues,” Rosovsky said. “So I thought it’d be useful to have a coherent and fairly balanced treatment of the subject.”

Acknowledging that grade inflation has undermined the credibility of academia, Corinne Schelling, director of academy affairs at the AAAS, said she hoped the report would help dispel some of the negative stereotypes associated with higher education.

Brodhead said that because of the issue’s complexity, it would require more than just a report to get an accurate picture of the situation.

“The issue is greatly more complicated than any quick diagnosis will reveal,” Brodhead said. “And getting evidence on this is very, very hard because you can’t tell if a grade is an inflated grade unless you’re able to make a quality judgment of the work the grade’s been attached to.”

Hartley said the main point of the report was to foster discussion, not to provide absolute solutions to the problems of grade inflation and recommendation letters.

“This could be a useful tool on campuses where people want to discuss these issues seriously,” Hartley said. “But it’s a very difficult issue to know how to resolve. It really has to be done on a campus-to-campus basis. It’s very context-driven.”

Linguistics chairman Stephen Anderson, who has taught at both Yale and Harvard, said he does not believe grade inflation is a serious issue at Yale, especially when compared to its Ivy counterpart.

“Having taught at both places, my gut feeling is that it was worse at Harvard than it is here,” Anderson said. “There was a feeling that everyone who was [at Harvard] deserved an ‘A.’ It was much more automatic to give people high grades at Harvard.”

Astronomy chairman Charles Bailyn said he is more concerned with the differences in grading patterns between departments at Yale. Such disparities have prevented many non-science majors from taking core science courses, which are generally perceived as more challenging.

“Undergraduates now are much less willing to take courses that they think they might not get a good grade in,” Bailyn said. “[The disparity in grading] has an effect on student behavior in terms of what courses to take, and that’s not a good thing.”

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