LARSON: Vote no on number grading

Nothing in Particular

Today, the faculty will consider a proposal aimed at ending our alleged epidemic of grade inflation. Several have criticized the proposal — which 79 percent of students oppose, according to a Yale College Council poll, and fewer than 10 percent support — by challenging the premise that we have grade inflation or by arguing that nothing needs to be done about it.

Harry Larson_headshot_(David Yu)These are fair points — declining admissions rates suggest better students, and even an inflated system provides a relative measure of student achievement.

But to those faculty members who don’t buy these arguments — who believe that we have real grade inflation and wish to change it — you should still vote no today.

The preliminary report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Grading has failed spectacularly to research and justify its centerpiece proposal: the imposition of a 59–100 point grading system. It fails to acknowledge serious and obvious hurdles to implementation, and it ignores ways the new scale could exacerbate those very problems it purports to address.

The committee’s main argument for a numerical grading system is best summed up by this sentence from its report:

“Studies of hyperinflations have shown that two things are necessary to stop them: structural reforms and changing the units of the currency.”

Apparently, then, we don’t just have grade inflation; we have hyperinflation.

Hyperinflations — such as the one that destabilized the Weimer Republic and set the stage for Nazi Germany — often do require a redenomination of currency, because they involve such a rapid debasement that people cease to believe that their money has any real and reliable value.

Yale students, on the other hand, still value their grades. Even if you think that the value of grading has been diluted, no one would argue that they have lost any and all value. Still, this comparison serves as the report’s primary justification for a numerical scale. They state, but do not support, the view that grade inflation is so severe that it must be curtailed with a new denomination that would signal a “new regime” and remove the symbolic difference between, say, a B-plus and an A-minus.

Given Princeton’s much-publicized grade deflation, one might think that the report’s authors would have at least explained why deflation in the context of a letter-grading system is impossible. They did not.

Nor are the challenges of a point-grading system, especially for humanities classes, ever addressed. Perhaps because the makeup of the committee was so tilted towards the sciences and social sciences, its report never addresses the fact that while a B-plus and A-minus paper are usually distinguishable, an 88 or 89 paper may not be.

Worst of all, it is likely that a point-grading system could make the very worst problems of grade inflation all the more pronounced. A student with whom I discussed this issue made the point that while the best students used to get A’s, the second-best students got B’s and the third-best students got C’s, those same groups now receive A’s, A-minuses and B-pluses, precisely because Yale moved to allow more grading variation. Under the new system, will these same students get 95s, 94s and 93s? 100s, 99s and 98s?

If that sounds farfetched, consider the report’s assertion that grade inflation has been exacerbated by competition between departments for students; as departments that graded harder were put at a competitive disadvantage, more and more gradually gave in to the pressure to grade more leniently.

It seems to me not just plausible but likely that while most professors would initially give grades above, say, a 94 for only the most exceptional work, there will be at least one lecture where the best students get 99s and 98s. The following year, a few more lectures will give slightly higher grades, and soon enough whole departments will follow.

True, the report proposes grade distribution guidelines, but those guidelines are meant to be nonbinding, without any enforcement teeth.

To the extent that the problem of grade inflation is one of variation — some professors give into it while others don’t, penalizing students who take noninflated classes — a point system would dramatically enlarge the room for that variation. The same professor might not give the same work exactly the same point grade if he graded it on two different days; imagine how different grades will be between professors who disagree on grading standards.

A numerical grading system, in short, seems a highly problematic solution to our supposed problem. To adopt one in the face of immense student opposition, without having addressed opponents’ most elementary criticisms, would be the height of hubris. I urge the faculty to vote no.

Harry Larson is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at harry.larson@yale.edu .

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