Opinion | 11:32 am | February 15, 2013 | By John Masko, Scott Stern, and Helen Rouner

Forum: Grades at Yale

In light of a recent report examining the future of grading at Yale, our bloggers mind their A’s and B’s to examine what a liberal arts education really means.

John Masko, Staff Blogger | Junior in Saybrook College

Sometimes I wonder what our Yale predecessors in the ’50s or ’60s would say, if we told them that many Yalies today consider an A-minus to be an average, lukewarm grade, and that a B-plus indicates seriously lacking work. My guess is that they would let out a hearty laugh, and come to conclusions similar to those that Dean Miller’s committee on grading policy released last week. In the wake of a semester when professors awarded more than 60 percent of all Yale grades in the A-range, it seems that we as a school have increasingly embraced academic policies that care more about our feelings than our minds.

Should Yale act to change this? I believe we should, and that in doing so, Yale will reaffirm its values as a rigorous institution of higher learning.

I know that many students are concerned, if inflation is reduced, about how their GPAs would compare to those of students from other schools, against whom they are competing for jobs. Though this concern is important, it should not be a determining factor of Yale’s grading policy. Despite the ultra-ambitiousness of our student body, Yale is not a vocational school; its main objective is to provide a balanced and rigorous liberal arts education, where learning to think is the top priority. Central to creating this rigorous and energetic learning environment is effective critical feedback from professors.

An inflated grading system, as professor Shelly Kagan noted in the News this week, decreases the chance we receive the feedback we value so much. A blissful parade of A-minuses may raise our self-esteem, but tells us nothing!

Grade inflation at Yale seems to have hit the humanities hardest. This is fairly unsurprising, since many of these classes mainly assign papers and writing assignments. In an increasingly sensitive academy, students are becoming more and more likely to take a bad grade on a paper as a personal offense. Any humanities student knows the feeling of doing worse than he had hoped on a paper after pouring his heart into it. And perhaps professors have begun to see dealing with this sensitivity as more trouble than it’s worth. Whatever the case may be, we’re used to getting good grades, particularly in the humanities.

The 100-point scale recommended by Dean Miller’s committee is an excellent compromise between grade deflation and the status quo, because it will give students very specific feedback on their work, without making it necessary to lower grades too much. But some grade deflation, as the report suggests, must happen as well.

As I am sure many Yalies would agree, we are a tough group. If we have what it takes to make it into Yale, we can handle a couple of B’s, or even C’s. It is our duty to ourselves to get the most out of this amazing academic experience and to ask that our professors be as honest with us (sometimes brutally) as possible. We can’t underestimate the value to our academic growth of being sent back to the drawing board!

Another great aspect of the discussion Dean Miller has been having is that it points toward an increased equity in grading throughout the institution. While a standard grade distribution may cause some problems in small English seminars made up of really dedicated students (which will need to be dealt with), in large lectures, particularly in the sciences, a standard distribution would be a godsend. It is about time that students doing problem sets, and science exams are graded on the same plane as their counterparts in the humanities. A new grading policy like that which Dean Miller is proposing would go a long way toward that goal.

Scott Stern, Staff Blogger | Sophomore in Branford College

Grade inflation is undeniable. In the 1960s, 10 percent of Yale grades were in the A-range, and it is more than 60 percent now. Yet is grade inflation a problem?

No. It isn’t. And I’m not saying that just because I’m lazy.

Grade inflation is decried high and low. In recent years, Harvard has sought to limit the number of students receiving honors, and Princeton has instituted a largely impotent policy of “grade deflation” (limiting the number of A’s — sort of). An article in the News on Feb. 11 (my birthday of all days!) dwelt on proposals to overhaul Yale’s grading system to limit the number of high grades given.

In an influential article on Slate many years ago, University of Wisconsin math professor Jordan Ellenberg outlined four arguments put forth against grade inflation: “psychological (easier grading saps a student’s will to achieve), moral (a weak performance is unworthy of the letter B), Marxist (grade inflation is a symptom of the consumerization of education), and even geopolitical (higher grades in the humanities draw American students away from the sciences, thereby compromising our ability to build better weapons and deflect other people’s).”

Furthermore, grade inflation makes it impossible to distinguish between gifted and not-so-gifted students.

As Ellenberg put it, “That sounds reasonable. But it’s wrong.”

He went on to give a technical analysis establishing that statistically significant differences still exist even with huge grade inflation. This certainly seemed convincing. My arguments are much less technical.

Simply put, uninflated grades are totally arbitrary, stressful and unnecessary at a place like Yale.

We’ve all been in classes in which the TFs vary widely — from the one who gives everyone an A to the one who gives everyone a B-minus. Some TFs are absolutely wonderful — helpful, knowledgeable and approachable. Yet others grade pretty unfairly. The same work in the same class could (and does) get wildly different grades. That alone makes it inherently unfair. As long as grades are so arbitrary, they might as well be concentrated on the upper end.

Uninflated grades are also stressful. In the 1960s, students at Yale Law School rioted to gain a less intense grading system. The Law School adopted a system of honors, pass, low-pass, fail, which was and remains hugely popular. In any conversation with Yale Law students, the most-cited advantage of the Law School is its stress-free grading system. It makes the Law School a fun place to be: a place that allows students to pursue their interests even if they’re challenging; a place that is not predicated on the type-A rat race. And it hasn’t harmed Yale Law academically or in the job market. Yale Law School has been ranked No. 1 as long as U.S. News & World Report has been doing rankings.

Perhaps the greatest reason Yale Law School has remained the best is its sterling (get it?) reputation. A degree from Yale Law School is impressive, regardless of the transcript. The same principle applies to Yale College. Yale is world-renowned, and a degree is a door-opener and pretentious conversation-starter for the rest of the one’s life. Students’ charisma, people skills and experience matter more to employers, not whether they got an A or a B in “Intro Micro.”

Grade inflation is real. And it’s not something that should be reformed. We would lose nothing if Yale went the whole nine yards and adopted the Law School’s grading system outright.

Helen Rouner, Contributing Blogger | Freshman in Davenport College

In light of America’s dangerous obsession with competing with China by having kids focus only on math and science, reasonableness obliges institutions like Yale to defend the liberal arts and comprehensive thinking. If Yale makes the switch to a 100-point grading system, the school’s administration will have lost sight of the purpose of higher education.

Converting to a point system would mean affirming that a Yale education is valuable primarily in its preprofessionalism. Putting such a heavy and specific emphasis on grades would communicate that students’ time at Yale is not meant for learning but for gaming some system – for jockeying for places in grad schools and positions at high-powered firms by having a GPA that is that last point higher than one’s competitor’s. All kinds of small-minded sources attack students with perverted notions of education like these; the last thing students need is to have the institution responsible for their learning endorsing these, too.

Professor Leslie Brisman, as well as many other professors in the English Department, does not put grades on students’ papers. Brisman understands that learning is inherently a process of error and revision, and that even letter grades are often counterproductive. That’s not to say that he does not grade his students, because he does: but grading is peripheral, and actual learning is central.

Students in the “Daily Themes” class submit a piece of creative writing every day but receive only two grades ever: one in the middle of the semester and one at the end. Students can pursue ideas other than those that have been preapproved for them because not every sentence students write is a hazard to their GPA.

Grading has the potential to invert the entire values system of both an institution and its students.

Even more fundamentally, though, the idea that one student is 1 or 2 percentages better than another at reading Milton is flat-out absurd.