Poll suggests grade inflation

Yale may have escaped the scrutiny faced by its peer institutions regarding grade inflation, but a recent poll conducted by the News suggests University transcripts have not been immune to the phenomenon.

Unlike Princeton and Harvard, which release data on grade distribution annually, Yale has not done so for 25 years. But an online survey of graduates from the Class of 2006, conducted by the News last week, suggests that the median grade-point average at graduation fell between 3.6 and 3.7 last year. Less than 5 percent of the 201 respondents to the poll reported a GPA lower than 3.0.

When the Office of Institutional Research last prepared a report on the distribution of grades in Yale College in 1981, it reported that 80 percent of grades were A’s or B’s. Dean of Administrative Affairs John Meeske said the University stopped releasing grade distributions after 1981 out of concern that professors would change their grading habits based on the data.

“We were afraid that people who were grading more strictly than the average might say, … ‘I guess I’d better change my habits and grade more leniently,’” Meeske said.

Administrators were also concerned about the consequences of bad publicity if news organizations reported on possible grade inflation based on the data, Meeske said.

The News’ online poll was sent via e-mail to 400 randomly-selected members of the Class of 2006, and 201 students filled out the survey. Though participants were randomly selected to receive an invitation to the poll, the poll’s 50 percent response rate likely affects the accuracy of the results. In particular, while the University grants honors degrees to 30 percent of graduates, 38.5 percent of poll respondents indicated that they received honors, suggesting that the survey results overestimate the average GPA.

The cutoff GPAs to receive honors at graduation were reported to members of the Class of 2006 by their residential college deans. Last year, the cutoff for summa cum laude, which goes to the top 5 percent of the class, was 3.91. The cutoff for magna cum laude, which is awarded to the next 10 percent, was 3.82, while the cutoff for cum laude honors was 3.72.

Because students rarely discuss their grades and Yale does not officially release them, several students said they were relatively unaware of the overall grade distribution. The 3.6-3.7 median GPA reported by poll respondents was higher than they expected, students said.

“It’s a little surprising,” Justin Bellamy ’09 said. “I would expect closer to 3.2.”

Jonathan Bittner ’07, who wrote a paper about grade inflation for an English class, said he was surprised that the median was so high, but not by the dearth of GPAs below 3.0.

“Most people think the GPA scale goes from 3.0 to 4.0,” he said.

After the University stopped releasing grade data in the 1980s, Meeske said, the Dean’s Office disseminated a collection of grading recommendations from different directors of undergraduate study to provide new professors with an understanding of grading at Yale. But Meeske said that practice ended some years ago.

The current Instructors’ Handbook defines an A grade as “excellent”, B as “good”, C as “satisfactory”, D as “passing” and F as “fail”.

Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said he thinks grading in a course should be left to the professor’s discretion, even though college-wide discussions about grading are valuable.

“The actual grade distribution in a particular course is something best decided upon by the faculty member teaching that course,” Salovey wrote in an e-mail. “He or she understands best what constitutes A or B-level work; he or she understands the peculiar difficulties and challenges in the course.”

While Yale administrators have adopted an openly laissez-faire attitude regarding the grade inflation issue in recent years, officials at Harvard and Princeton have actively spoken out about grade inflation and implemented more stringent grading policies to try to control students’ GPAs.

Following a 2001 Boston Globe report on grade inflation at Harvard, the university’s faculty began to crack down on high grades. But Harry Lewis, the former dean of Harvard College, said that although grades went down for a while when awareness of grade inflation was high, once the hype died down, they crept back up to levels higher than ever.

“I’m very frustrated because we spent an entire year talking about [grade inflation] and not accomplishing anything and then congratulating ourselves like we did,” Lewis said.

In February, the Harvard Crimson reported that 23.7 percent of all undergraduate grades in 2004-’05 were As, which was the highest proportion since 1999-2000 and the second highest in the past two decades. The A-minus, which accounted for 25 percent of all Harvard grades in 2004-’05, has been the grade most frequently given to students since 1989-’90. Failing grades accounted for only 0.4 percent of total marks last year, a 20-year low.

But Harvard sophomore Sherri Geng said she thinks there is no grade inflation problem at Harvard, since there are no easy A’s.

“I really feel like, if a professor is going to curve something or implement some kind of competitive grading system, it just kind of depresses everyone,” she said. “Everyone in my classes is very, very smart; therefore I almost feel like everyone deserves an A.”

Assigning quotas for grades is problematic, Harvard junior Nikhil Matthews said, especially in small classes where all students may be performing at a high level.

“I think the general sentiment among students is that they should be graded according to their performance, not in comparison with their peers,” he said.

Lewis said using GPAs as a tool to measure students is “laughable” and “meaningless”, because students do not take the same classes, and there is no common standard for comparison. In addition, Lewis said, the use of GPA as a measure of academic performance is likely to encourage some students to be conservative with their course selection in order to boost their GPAs and achieve honors to put on their resumes. Ultimately, Lewis said, students who choose classes based on these standards may end up less well-educated.

At Princeton, administrators took an aggressive approach to quelling inflation by setting a target of 35 percent A-plus, A and A-minus grades for courses in every academic department. When the system was first implemented in the 2004-’05 academic year, A-range grades declined to 40.9 percent from 46 percent in 2003-’04.

Michael Reilly, a senior at Princeton, said he thought most students at Princeton were mainly concerned about how graduate schools and potential employers would interpret lower GPAs, especially since no other top university has implemented a similar policy.

“It was sold here very much that as soon as we do it, the rest of the world would follow suit,” he said.

After the implementation of the new grading policy, Princeton administrators began to attach a statement explaining the policy to students’ transcripts.

But Rob Inglis ’07 said he thinks employers and graduate programs will adapt to changing grade distributions, whether inflationary or deflationary, when making hiring and acceptance decisions.

“I don’t think grade inflation is as big of a problem as it’s hyped up to be,” he said.

Lewis said there are only two ways to properly address the issue of grade inflation: to constantly monitor grades, or to implement a cap for the highest grades. He said he thinks Princeton’s anti-inflation policies are a step in the right direction.

“Princeton did something that was honest, at least, which I don’t think we did,” he said.

But Bittner said he thinks Princeton’s solution makes grading more unfair, not less, because it presumes that only a fixed percentage of students in each class deserve A’s — even though the quality of student work may vary between classes and departments.

Some students said they believe grading at Yale is inconsistent, especially between humanities and science departments. In fall 2004, the University’s Science Council engaged in an informal review of grading across different courses in the sciences, which found that grades tend to be lower in the sciences than they are in the humanities and social sciences.

Meijin Bruttomesso ’08 said the high GPAs reported by graduates in the News’ poll may indicate that people choose their classes in part because of their reputation for easy grading.

“To have most of the class be in the A-minus, B-plus average, … that’s pretty impressive,” she said. “It reflects well, but it could also mean that people know what classes to take.”

Justin Kim ’09, a chemistry major, said he is not sure whether grade inflation is a problem at Yale because students are highly qualified.

“Students that come to Yale are [at the] top of their class and obviously some of the best students around, but it’s a question of whether they should be graded easier here,” he said.

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