UP CLOSE | Defining the Yale College ‘A’

Students voiced their concerns with the proposed grading reforms at a protest outside of the Yale College faculty meeting on April 4.
Students voiced their concerns with the proposed grading reforms at a protest outside of the Yale College faculty meeting on April 4. Photo by Jennifer Cheung .

For the first time in recent memory, students gathered outside a monthly Yale College faculty meeting to protest.

“Was Tolstoy a 97 or a 96?” read the hastily scrawled words on one student’s posterboard. “Yale is stressful enough,” read another.

Students stationed themselves outside Davies Auditorium, where the April 4 Yale College faculty meeting took place, to protest a variety of proposals to overhaul Yale’s grading system, including the adoption of a 100-point grading scale and a recommended rubric of grade distributions. As professors and administrators filed into the auditorium, students distributed leaflets outlining their concerns about the proposals’ impact on student life and academic culture.

Proposals to change the grading system follow decades of steadily rising average GPAs across Yale College: the gentleman’s C, it seemed, had become the gentleman’s B. And after 62 percent of the grades awarded last spring were in the A-range, many professors have acknowledged that grading in Yale College is headed in a dangerous direction.

While the trend may have solid statistical backing, its cause remains a source of dispute among faculty and students. Admissions rates to Yale College have plummeted throughout the last decade, and with selectivity comes greater talent, some professors said. Others point to broader cultural shifts among students, namely rising expectations to achieve high grades in all classes. But regardless of cause, some members of the Yale community fear that every top grade awarded ultimately cheapens the value of a Yale A.

Professors did not overlook the divisive debate when they voted this month. After what Yale College Dean Mary Miller characterized as a lively conversation, professors voted to send the proposals to change Yale’s grading system back for further review by the Yale College ad-hoc committee on grading, which has spent the past year studying grading trends.

In order for change to come to Yale’s grading system, faculty must reach consensus on the meaning and purpose of grades within the University’s liberal arts curriculum — fundamental questions behind any change to grading policy.

“When we grade at its best, grades are tools that help students learn more as they are working over the course of a semester,” Miller said. “I think one of the most challenging parts of grading is how to keep that tool alive rather than feel that tool is dead.”

 

WARNING SIGNS

Throughout recent decades, various indicators have begun to suggest that Yale’s grading system has gone awry.

In 1963, only 10 percent of grades Yale College students earned were in the A-range — a statistic over six times smaller than that of last spring.

That semester, grade-point average cutoffs for Latin Honors, which are awarded to the top 30 percent of students in each graduating class, rose to 3.95 for summa cum laude, to 3.89 for magna cum laude and to 3.80 for cum laude. For the class of 2006, the cutoffs were 3.91, 3.82 and 3.72.

Though many have speculated about the average GPAs given across departments at Yale each semester, the actual data has not been available, either publicly or internally, since 1982, when the Office of Institutional Research stopped releasing annual grade reports to the faculty.

But the available information was enough to cause Miller to convene a committee to re-examine grading at Yale this fall.

“It seemed an appropriate time to gather together a group of faculty members who would think about how we learn as a faculty, how to give grades and what we think grades mean,” Miller said.

The committee, chaired by economics professor Ray Fair, combed through approximately 50 years of grading data to compile a preliminary report to present at February’s Yale College faculty meeting. The finding confirmed suspicions about rising grading trends, though the degree to which grades have changed over the years came as a shock to many professors.

According to grading data compiled by the Office of Institutional Research, the percentage of A-range grades awarded remained relatively constant at about 10 percent until 1963, when the average grade began moving upward in a linear fashion, stabilizing temporarily around 40 percent in the 1970s. In 1983, grades continued their upward trajectory and reached a new summit at 62 percent in spring 2012.

But statistics across departments and disciplines suggest great discrepancies in grading practices throughout Yale College. Within individual departments last spring, the percentage of As and A-minuses ranged from 47.7 percent to 82.5 percent, and STEM departments had significantly lower percentages than social science and humanities departments, according to the report.

“For many departments now, there are in effect only three grades used: A, A-minus, and B-plus,” the report stated. “For the less generous departments, B is added to this group. Yale is approaching the point, at least in some departments, in which the only grades are A and A-minus, which is close to having no grading.”

Without students earning a wide spread of grades, Miller said grades themselves may be becoming ineffective. While the letters on a transcript convey a certain measure of “absolute” information to employers and graduate schools, Miller said grades should also help students learn and improve their own work.

The available statistics suggest that grades will continue to follow their upward trajectory — if the high number of grades at the top of the spectrum remains unaddressed.

“All these things prompt a conversation but don’t give much indication of what direction this conversation will take,” Miller said.

 

WHAT’S IN AN A?

Different professors have different standards for awarding grades at the top of the grading spectrum, and the current Yale College Programs of Study handbook does not resolve the ambiguity. The document defines an A grade in a single word: “excellent.”

From interviews with nearly 30 professors across the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, certain criteria such as clarity of expression, sophistication of thinking and thorough comprehension of material emerged as the most common factors defining A-level work. But context often shapes grading, too: Class size, department and several other details result in little consensus about the meaning of Yale’s A.

History and African American studies professor Jonathan Holloway said an A represents “mastery” of the subject matter. Holloway said he thinks all students are capable of achieving this mastery, but he added that an entire class of students will rarely produce A-grade work.

“To me, an A has to have hit all the marks and hit them successfully,” Holloway said. “If a paper demonstrates attention to all detail and a mastery of topic and substantiation of thesis, that’s an A.”

President-elect Peter Salovey, who is also a psychology professor, said he has always graded along an absolute standard which he makes clear to the class at the beginning of a semester. If everyone performed to that standard, Salovey said he would give them all an A, and if no one met the standard, he would not award any As.

But economics professor Eric Weese rejected the notion that there should be an absolute standard of an A, defining the grade as excellent performance in the context of other students who are taking or have taken the class.

Political science professor John Bullock ’01 said he defines As based on the format of the class. In lecture courses, where grades are largely based upon numerical exam scores, Bullock says he has a more distinct sense of grade distributions. But in seminars, where students write final papers, Bullock said grading is more complex. For Bullock to give a paper an A, he said students must impress him with the depth of their thinking in addition to displaying technical precision.

“One of the most important things that I want students to know about grading is, a flawless essay is not necessarily an A essay,” Bullock said. “For an essay to earn an A, it has to have something that sets it apart, some special depth, some special interest.”

Math professor Yair Minsky said grades in most math and science courses differ from those in other disciplines because they are usually quantifiable. Minsky said grades in his introductory courses correspond to a basic curve, where approximately 40 percent of students receive a grade in the A-range.

Both Minsky and economics professor Timothy Guinnane said they sense a discrepancy between the definition of an A as “excellent” and the way professors currently apply the grade to students’ work.

“I think a lot of students think an A is a general result of good work by a good student,” Guinnane said.  “I think an A is more than that.”

Though he said he maintains high standards for As even in more advanced courses, Minsky said he is usually more likely to give a student a B-minus than a C because he thinks the letter C has acquired a strong stigma.

 

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF GRADING

With grades in the A-range at an all-time high, professors and administrators said they want to isolate the cause for the compression of grades at the top of the spectrum, an endeavor that raises questions: Are students earning grades they do not deserve? Is grade inflation at work in the University?

In a News survey sent to approximately a third of student body earlier this week, 57 percent of 573 respondents said they think grade inflation exists at Yale. But the statistics are not so simple: While 37 percent of respondents said they feel they have received a final grade higher than they deserve, 72 percent percent said they feel they have received a final grade lower than they deserve. And, when asked to define grade inflation, answers did not always align.

Philosophy professor Shelly Kagan, whose course evaluations place him among Yale’s toughest graders, said he has felt that his grading system is “out of whack” with many of his contemporaries for years, though the lack of available grading statistics made his hunches impossible to confirm.

At the beginning of each semester, Kagan said he reads the brief section on grades in the Blue Book: alongside the “excellent” A, a B is “good” and a C is “satisfactory.” Though Kagan said he does not think his grading system is unreasonable, he conceded that he sometimes gives grades that many of his students might never have seen before.

“If you get good grades, you’ve really impressed me,” Kagan said. “If you get a poor grade, you have a lot to do, you need to buckle down and stop coasting.”

Miller said most Yale students arrive at the University having only received As in high school, but she added that college assessments focus on comprehension and analysis rather than memorization, like high school evaluations.

Several professors interviewed said they think students expect to receive certain grades when they come to college, a phenomenon they said puts implicit pressure on professors to grade more generously.

Guinnane, who graduated college with a 3.4 GPA, said he feels that students view anything other than an A as an “insult,” adding that he has had students who vehemently protest any grade lower than an A.

“Any professor who has been teaching before will tell you that you get students coming to your office, and it can be quite unpleasant,” Guinnane said. “I love my students but there has never been a year where I felt 60 percent of them deserved an A.”

Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke professor and expert on grade inflation, said the single greatest cause of grade inflation is that professors feel compelled to grade more easily.

English professor David Bromwich attributed some of Yale’s grade compression to “intellectual handholding.” Bromwich said many professors allow students to revise their work or consult with them numerous times before a final draft is submitted.

“With these repeated occasions of conferring and sort of cooperatively plotting a paper, it becomes practically collaborative work between student and teacher, and it becomes harder for the teacher to give a low grade,” Bromwich said. “There is then a convergence, and that convergence is towards the B-plus, A-minus area.”

Bromwich added that grades are lower in STEM departments in part because professors have less direct contact with students and can grade more objectively as a result.

Provost Benjamin Polak said he thinks large discrepancies between grades in STEM departments and those in humanities and social sciences make it difficult to create a University-wide definition of an A. Though Polak said he thinks grade inflation exists at Yale, he added that he does not think grade compression can be addressed fully if grades remain distorted based on subject matter.

“Personally, I think the larger problem is the differences in grading across fields,” Polak said. “I don’t like to see students giving up on something they’re actually good at for something they’re not because of differences in grading between departments.”

 

GRADES IN CONTEXT

But other professors said they do not feel that grade compression necessarily signifies grade inflation, instead attributing the upward trend to factors such as changing student demographics and increased selectivity of the admissions process, which make today’s classes more competitive than previous ones. For the class of 2017, Yale received a record-high 29,610 applications, and the admission rate dropped to 6.72 percent, the lowest level in Yale’s history.

“From what I see, the main reason that I am giving higher grades now than I used to is that my students are better,” English professor Leslie Brisman said. “When I started teaching here there really was a cadre of C students, who didn’t take their work that seriously and didn’t do well, so we gave them Cs and they deserved them. Yale isn’t admitting C students these days.”

Religious studies professor Steven Fraade, who has served on Yale admissions committees, said he has watched the standards by which students are admitted to Yale become more rigorous over time and said he does not think he himself would have been admitted to Yale by today’s standards. With decreased emphasis on factors such as legacy in college admissions, Fraade said he finds it plausible that the current student body is more diligent and hardworking than its predecessors.

But Rojstaczer said he does not completely attribute the steep increase in grades to increases in the number of qualified students. Elite universities have always been able to draw the best students, Rojstaczer said, adding that today’s students have more extracurricular distractions from their schoolwork than their counterparts did 30 years ago.

Rojstaczer said the grading data from Yale is consistent with the upward trajectory of grades nationwide, which took off in the 1980s, as rising tuition fees changed how students approach college. Rojstaczer said heightened tuition created a “consumer mentality” at universities that boosted student expectations for tangible rewards from their education.

“The average SAT scores now are not actually that different than from the early 1960s,” Rojstaczer said. “It may be true that there have been small improvements in the class in the last 30 years, but nowhere near the improvement you’d need to explain the dramatic rise in As.”

Of 573 respondents to the News survey earlier this week, only 11 percent of students reported spending less than an average of 10 hours a week on schoolwork outside of class time, and 35 percent said they spend between 20 to 30 hours studying each week.

 

STILL ‘THE SAME HOUSE’

At the root of any discussion on grading policies in Yale College is a debate about the philosophical foundations that underlie the As, Bs and Cs on a student’s transcript. And some professors fear that the Yale College grading committee’s proposals promote superficial change without tackling the big questions.

When it was formulating its proposals, the grading committee looked to Princeton as an example of a peer institution that has actively worked to cut back grade inflation, Fair said. In 2004, the school made waves by setting a target number of As and A-minuses at 35 percent for all undergraduate courses and 55 percent for junior projects and senior theses after a report revealed that 46 percent of Princeton grades the prior year had fallen within the A-range.

Nancy Malkiel, the Dean of the College at Princeton when the changes to the school’s grading system were implemented, said the policy has succeeded in restoring the power of grades to convey information and in reducing discrepancies across departments.

But the grading committee’s proposals would recommend, rather than impose, a grade distribution across Yale College. Additionally, a central component to the proposals was what Fair calls a “change of currency.” Under the new system, grades would be numerical — instead of letter-based — a change Fair said would signify a cultural shift in professors’ method of assigning grades.

Bullock, the political science professor, said he thinks the current grading system does not allow professors to distinguish between slight differences in quality among their students’ work. He added that numerical grades would enable him to convey more precise and accurate information to students about their academic performance.

“I have very good students but I also have a small number of superb students,” Bullock said. “My very good students deserve an A but I don’t have a way to recognize students that are superior.”

But other professors interviewed were not so sure.

Though economics professor Joseph Altonji said he agrees that a greater spread of possible grades would positively impact the University, he said he would prefer tweaking the existing letter-grade system rather than completely overhauling it. Ultimately, the decision to award a grade belongs to a professor, Altonji said, adding that frank discussion throughout Yale would be more productive than switching to a numerical scale.

Holloway said he is concerned that adopting a new grading system would fail to address the deeper underlying programs.

“The fact is, changing a system is like putting up fresh wallpaper when you’re not changing the house,” Holloway said. “The room will look great for a little while, but then it’s going to start peeling back or looking tired, and the house is the same house.”

Academic concerns aside, students feared the grading proposals would have a noticeable impact on student life.

Of the 1,760 respondents to a Yale College Council survey, 79 percent said they were opposed to the proposed changes, and the same percent said they think the same proposal would have a negative impact on the student body. Additionally, approximately 1,300 students signed an independent petition before the faculty meeting protesting the proposals.

Students surveyed and interviewed by the News said they are most concerned about the impact a change in grading policy would have on Yale’s “collaborative” atmosphere. Switching systems to a numerical system, they said, would make students more acutely aware of grades and make the University environment more cutthroat and competitive.

“I think Yale’s atmosphere with the changes would be less educational,” Katie Aburizik ’13 said. “A test should always measure whether an individual student knows the material, not how much they know in comparison to other people.”

Amid the student protests, the faculty voted to postpone their consideration of changes to Yale’s grading system until November’s faculty meeting. Responding directly to student concerns, Miller said she will appoint undergraduates to the committee to help reconsider the proposals.

“I am glad we are having this conversation about grading,” Miller said. “I think it’s important for students to know grading is not just a letter but it’s a real intellectual activity, it’s a real philosophical question — what do grades mean? And how do we engage with them? That question is not something that will rise and fall on a decision at the faculty meeting.”

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