More than a year after a newspaper investigation turned up evidence of massive grade inflation at Harvard University, the school announced last month that its average grades fell slightly in 2001-2002.
The drop in grades followed an October 2001 report in the Boston Globe that found that 91 percent of Harvard undergraduates received honors upon graduation. In response to the report, Harvard announced changes to its grading and honors policies.
While Harvard’s grade data led to changes in the grading and honors systems, Yale has continued to honor its custom of not releasing grade data, Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead said.
The debate over Harvard’s grades comes amid longstanding concerns about grade inflation nationwide, including at Yale.
Yale Faculty of Arts and Sciences Registrar Barry Kane said every institution grapples with the problem of grade inflation.
“I think in a general way that most institutions would agree that there is some grade inflation,” Kane said.
Duke University professor Stuart Rojstaczer, who has collected grade data from 34 colleges — including Harvard, Princeton and Duke — said he considers grade inflation a real phenomenon.
“The grade point average has become saturated,” Rojstaczer said. “A C is a black mark on someone’s transcript and I don’t give it — right now an A is not a symbol of excellent achievement.”
Grade inflation has implications for graduate and professional schools as well as employers, Rojstaczer said. It also affects student motivations, Rojstaczer said.
“Grading itself implicitly assumes that you can make distinctions,” Rojstaczer said. “In a scale that’s become saturated, it’s very difficult to distinguish [between students].”
But Rojstaczer said it is difficult to debate grade inflation because no one knows how to address the problem.
Grade inflation at Yale?
Brodhead said when he came to Yale he was told the median grade was a 78.
“The median grade at Yale is no longer that,” Brodhead said. “But when I was a student here, the number of students who took their work seriously was very small.”
Kane said the Registrar’s Office gives out general instructions for grading to professors.
“The registrar or the dean cannot tell a professor how to grade,” Kane said. “A lot is up to the individual faculty member, which is probably appropriate.”
Brodhead said releasing grade data would affect all faculty members and that he would not release it without consulting with faculty members.
But Yale has not always kept grade data private.
Associate Yale College Dean John Meeske said the Office of Institutional Research stopped releasing grades in 1981 when a change in grading systems made the tables too big. Later concerns arose that if grade data were released, professors who grade less harshly would continue to do so and harsher graders would start to give out higher grades, Meeske said.
“The fear was that would cause grade inflation,” Meeske said.
Kane said Yale does not release grades because grades are unique to an institution.
Kane said Yale is also careful about sharing grades within the University and restricts departments’ knowledge about grade distribution to majors within their departments or programs.
Yale awards honors upon graduation based on given percentages, rather than specific grade point averages. Kane said the grade point average demarcations for the different categories have remained remarkably similar.
Changes in Cambridge
In order to correct for potential grade inflation, Harvard will switch from its 15 point grading system to the conventional 4.00 system, Dean for Undergraduate Education Benedict Gross said in a letter to Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
Under the 15 point grading scale, an A was equal to 15 points and an A- received 14 points. But a B+ dropped down to 12 points, Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education John O’Keefe said.
The reason for switching grading systems centered on the gap between an A- and B+ because professors were reluctant to give B+’s — the drop from 14 to 12 seemed to punitive to students’ GPAs, O’Keefe said.
O’Keefe said professors were not able to communicate the value of students’ work effectively under the old system.
“We wanted to redeem the B,” O’Keefe said.
Though the formal changes have not been enacted, the average grade at Harvard decreased from 12.65 in 2000-2001 to 12.58 in 2001-2002, Gross said. It was the first time the mean grade has decreased in the past 16 years, Gross said. The data suggested that the decline was because of a shift from A- to B+.
The basis for awarding honors will also change beginning with students graduating in June 2005, O’Keefe said. While in the past, Harvard gave honors based on grade point average, the new system will limit honors to the top 60 percent of the class.
Searching for solutions
Although Harvard will switch to the standard 4.00 system, other schools have tried other methods to keep grade inflation in check.
At Dartmouth, transcripts include the course enrollment and median grade in the course along with the grade the student earned, Dartmouth College Registrar Polly Griffin said.
“It helps give context for grading,” Griffin said. “The second reason was to some way address grade inflation — There’s no way to know if the reporting of median grades impacted grade inflation.”
Rojstaczer suggested eliminating the current letter grade system altogether.
“My own opinion is that the old grading system has outlived its usefulness,” Rojstaczer said.
The letter grade system has been in use for 100 to 110 years, Rojstaczer said.
Yale College has used its current grading system — letter grades with pluses and minuses except an A+ — since 1981. From 1972 to 1981, Yale used letter grades without pluses and minuses. Briefly between 1967 and 1972, Yale College used the system of grading currently used in the Graduate School — distinctions of honors, high pass, pass and fail.
Brodhead said there is no magic solution to grade inflation.
“It’s so hard to understand to what extent a constant value has received an inflated grade,” Brodhead said.
Grading is not a form of punishment or reward, Brodhead said. The purpose of grading is to let students know how close they are to excellence, he said.
“It’s not educational to tell someone that mediocre work is excellent,” Brodhead said. “People aren’t fooling and they don’t learn anything.”