Addressing a controversial issue in higher education, Harvard recently released a report concerning grade inflation, but Yale says it still will not release such data.
The Harvard report comes in the wake of heavy media scrutiny, including a Boston Globe study that showed 91 percent of Harvard seniors graduated summa, magna or cum laude last June.
Providing grade data from the last 16 years, the report released Nov. 20 showed that grade point averages have increased by approximately 7 percent since the 1985-86 academic year, the Harvard Crimson reported.
The report also revealed that last year, students enrolled in humanities courses received the highest percentage of A-range grades, at 54 percent. In contrast, 50 percent of students in natural sciences and 43 percent of those in social sciences received A-range grades.
The report also highlighted class size as a major source of grade inflation. The data showed that 50 percent more students in small classes received A-range grades than those in large lecture courses.
Dean of Administrative Affairs John Meeske said Yale has not released any statistics regarding grade distribution since 1981.
“We’re afraid it would actually increase inflation as people grading more harshly would grade less harshly as they saw what other people were doing,” Meeske said.
But Harvard is taking a different approach. Jeffrey Wolcowitz, Harvard’s associate dean of undergraduate education, said Harvard distributed the report to every academic department for discussion. In February, the departments will provide feedback about their grading policies.
“We want each department to come up with some common grading guidelines about what various grades mean,” Wolcowitz said. “They have to ask themselves if the grades they’re giving support the pedagogical goals of the department.”
Although 91 percent of Harvard students graduated summa, magna or cum laude last year, the percentage of Yale seniors who graduate with these honors is fixed at 30 percent each year.
Heather Richardson ’02 said she did not see anything wrong with Harvard’s policy on honors.
“Why not give everyone a pat on the back if it’ll increase their confidence going into grad school or the job market?” Richardson said.
The movement to curb grade inflation at Harvard began last spring when a committee evaluated Harvard’s grading procedures and concluded that grade inflation was a serious problem.
“There were concerns that the range of grades made it difficult for faculty to distinguish between differing standards of work,” Wolcowitz said. “And there was also the concern that grade inflation wasn’t motivating students to produce their best work.”
But Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead ’68 said he did not believe grade inflation was a pressing issue at Yale.
“It’s certainly true that grades have risen since the time that I was here,” Brodhead said. “It’s also true that many more students are taking their work more seriously now. If the fact that grades have risen correlates to the fact that students are doing better work, is that so bad?”
Meeske said that while grades at Yale are “very very high,” they are an accurate reflection of the intellectual capacities of the students. But he also said that issuing a wide range of grades would provide more accurate feedback.
“Faculty really are grading students almost entirely in a small range between a straight A and a B-plus,” Meeske said. “That’s just a tiny little range to get feedback on. Ideally, we would have a broader range so people would have a better idea of how they’re doing.”
But Meeske said that Yale could not unilaterally implement a drastic change in grading policies because it could disadvantage graduates in terms of graduate school admissions or employment opportunities.
“It’s easier for several schools to do it at the same time,” Meeske said. “[We] don’t want grades going out from Yale that are much lower than Harvard or Columbia or other Ivies.”
But while Alex Rives ’04 said he did not think grade inflation was a major issue on campus, he did say the expectation levels for grades are high at Yale.
“I’d consider a B a bad grade,” Rives said.