Forty years ago, only 10 percent of grades awarded by Yale College were in the A-range. Last spring, that percentage was 62.

Yale College Dean Mary Miller created the Yale College ad hoc committee on grading policy, which released a preliminary report on grading trends last week, as a response to rising grade-point average cutoffs for high honors and soaring grade averages nationwide. Chaired by economics professor Ray Fair, the committee presented its findings at last Thursday’s Yale College faculty meeting and recommended that Yale College transition from a letter grade system to a 100-point scale, along with other proposals, which would be implemented in the 2014-’15 school year. The committee will consider student and faculty feedback and submit concrete proposals for a vote at April’s faculty meeting.

Though the report stated that compression at the top of the grade distribution can be detrimental to students, students and faculty interviewed expressed mixed reactions to the committee’s proposals.

“[The report] looks at the long term trajectory in which the total number of A’s and A-minuses have risen steadily as a percentage of overall grades across all divisions and departments, and it recommends that the faculty take a number of actions,” Miller said. “I think this is going to be a major point of discussion this year.”

The committee’s report begins with an examination of the purpose and intent of grades, and then compares grading data from Yale to similar data from peer institutions. The report notes continuous grade compression at the top of the GPA rubric, with A’s, A-minuses and B-pluses dominating students’ transcripts. The report also indicates large discrepancies between the grades awarded in different departments.

Based on this data, the committee drafted a number of preliminary proposals, including transitioning Yale’s grading system to a 100-point system. Fair said percentage grades would eliminate the “cliffs” that exaggerate the differences between B-plus and A-minus grades while providing professors with a means of curbing potential grade inflation.

“If you’re going to change the system at Yale from what we now have with respect to the clustering of A’s and A-minuses, you’re probably going to have to change the units of currency,” Fair said.

Though the committee did not advocate mandatory grade distributions, the report suggested a set of guidelines that would award 35 percent of grades in the 90 to 100 range, 40 percent in the 80 to 89 range, 20 percent in the 70 to 79 range, 4 to 5 percent in the 60 to 69 range and less than 1 percent at 59. Under these distributions, the mean grade in Yale College would be an 85.5 percent, according to the report.

But faculty and students interviewed expressed mixed opinions about the committee’s current proposals.

Philosophy professor Shelly Kagan said he thinks the upward compression of grades makes grades lose their effectiveness as evaluative tools, which is harmful for students.

“If B-plus is being kept for bad work, and virtually everyone is getting A or A-minus, this eliminates any genuine feedback,” Kagan said. “I’ve always thought this is a disservice to undergraduates.”

Kagan said he thinks taking a more active stance against grade inflation could prompt other universities to follow suit, adding that Princeton drew the attention of other universities in 2004 when it instituted grade deflation policies, which standardized the percentage of A’s and A minuses awarded at 35 percent for undergraduate courses and at 55 percent for junior and senior independent work.

But political science professor David Cameron said he is skeptical about the benefits of the committee’s proposals. While Cameron said he is intrigued by the data the committee has collected so far, he added that many complex factors determine grade distribution, and he thinks professors should consider the reasons behind fluctuations in grading over time and across departments before making significant changes to University policy.

The 13 students interviewed opposed switching to a 100-point system, though not all agreed on whether grade inflation affects their performance in the classes they take.

Christopher Mulvey ’15 said he believes grade inflation affects certain departments at Yale, but he thinks the net impact of switching Yale’s current system would be detrimental overall.

“I think the 100-point system would be way too much stress,” Mulvey said. “[Yale] was billed to me as one of the least competitive Ivies, in a good way, where you don’t want to kill the people around you for doing better than you. That’s not what Yale’s about.”

Matthew Thomas Ambler ’13 added that students would stress more about every point in a 100-point system, which would also put additional pressure on professors.

Miller convened the ad hoc committee on grading policy in September.

Clarification: Feb. 11

A previous version of this article stated that 40 years ago, only 10 percent of grades awarded by Yale College were A’s, and that last spring, that percentage was 62. Those percentages refer to grades in the A-range.  

  • yalengineer

    So when a physic exam comes back with an mean of 35%, a high of 62%, mode of 25%, how are we going to handle that?

    The standardization process benefits no one. The individual departments should continue to determine how they would like to distribute grades. The students will have significantly altered perspective on what A work actually means. Employers will now have to look at an archaic 100 point system. The only people who wins will be the committee on grading policy.

    I guess that the one benefit is that there is now an effective A+.

    • 20155

      You can scale the raw scores if needed, based on a gaussian distribution. It’s not that hard; it’s done at other institutions across the world.

      • yalengineer

        We could always take things one step further and go with the MIT system of grading on a 5.0 scale.

        It is extremely easy to do a numerical correction, the math behind that statistical manipulation is incredibly straighforward. However, the system proposed by Ray Fair goes with a more rigid explanation. Maybe that’s what they have to do in the econ department.

  • http://www.kissmyassnigger.com/ kissmyassn!gger

    62% of grades last Spring were A’s? That’s seriously disturbing. Mainly because I thought I had it good in classes that were curved to make a B+ the average. I thought I had it good in classes that had 20% A’s/ 20% A-‘s, or 50% between both A’s and A-‘s. We were told these were nice curves.

    Perhaps they actually meant that 62% of grades were A’s or A-‘s? Otherwise, non-STEM departments must be giving out basically all A’s to compensate for grading in the science areas.

    62% is outrageous—literally a joke—and worse off, it means that there has to be large variation across departments, because my science/math classes are not curved like that at all.

    • Guest

      Agreed. This HAS to mean 62% A or A-, which Fair’s quote seems to indicate. And I second that the best of my STEM classes were 20 A/20 A-/20 B+/20 B/20 Other, which felt quite generous given the range of scores on exams.

      I imagine that if students care about this (and I’m sure many don’t because the current system produces a high GPA for nearly everyone), they care about the extent to which allocation of grades in different departments affects one’s own eligibility for academic honors/pbk/etc. How is fair to rank students based on GPA/percentage of A’s if some departments give ~30-40% A’s per course when others give upwards of ~60%?

    • dcfelons

      Agreed. This HAS to mean 62% A or A-, which Fair’s quote seems to indicate. And I second that the best of my STEM classes were 20 A/20 A-/20 B+/20 B/20 Other, which felt quite generous given the range of scores on exams.

      I imagine that if students care about this (and I’m sure many don’t because the current system produces a high GPA for nearly everyone), they care about the extent to which allocation of grades in different departments affects one’s own eligibility for academic honors/pbk/etc. How is fair to rank students based on GPA/percentage of A’s if some departments give ~30-40% A’s per course when others give upwards of ~60%?

    • blindlyagreeswithabovecomment

      I agree. The joke is no longer funny.

  • charliewalls

    This is a complex issue, involving inside and outside perceptions, but certainly something for the University’s attention. Referencing standards are rather meaningless when 90% of the students fall in one category. There are many ways this could be approached, internally, but the outside coordinates would remain (‘smiley-face’ based to a large extent). The distribution proposed (graph) is certainly more towards a standard distribution. All departments could approach that with appropriate adjustments, whether letters or numbers. The current situation is really disappointing, particularly to someone of 50+ years ago pleased with the two As achieved: History of Art and Thermodynamics and Kinetic Theory.

  • crazybus

    No curves!

  • pollypocket13579

    Not to downplay the real issues of grade inflation, but pointing to the fact that Yale students today get more As than Yale students of yesteryear is an asinine way of understanding the problem. Yale students today are accepted on merit; Yale students forty years ago were not.

    • phantomllama

      Let’s not forget that legacies, athletes and affirmative action all cast some doubt on the statement that students are accepted entirely on merit.

    • ldffly

      “Yale students today are accepted on merit; Yale students forty years ago were not.”
      This is a joke, right? If you’re not joking, just go back to reports from those days to see how the alumni regarded Inky Clark. The legacy students were a shrinking segment of the College. There was some consideration for geographic diversity and athletics, but academic standards weren’t compromised in the 1970s, anymore than they are now.

    • http://www.facebook.com/elizabeth.santorella Elizabeth Santorella

      Is the idea that the students are smarter now, so it makes sense and is just fine that they do better in their classes? But shouldn’t the classes become harder as the students get smarter?

    • blindlyagreeswithabovecomment

      This makes perfect sense. Yale only confers more A’s because Yalies are on average more intelligent.

  • Guest

    Is there a PDF link to the report?

  • phantomllama

    Is there a PDF link to the report?

  • 20155

    Am I one of the few students who supports this? I went through an education system in high school which was very objective; we were given numbers which completely dictated our access to university. Perhaps this is why the 100 point system doesn’t seem daunting to me. I wonder if other undergraduates would feel the same way if they’d already studied under a similar system.

    In my eyes, a 100 point grading system gives more information about success. There’s a difference between scraping an A in a class and topping it, and I feel as though Yale has an obligation to reflect that. I’m not entirely convinced that a 100 point grading system would be more competitive in all cases: the difference between a 94 and a 95 is negligible (and which employers would actually care?), whereas if that was the difference between an A and an A-, there’s a lot more at stake for someone to hassle a TA or professor.

    In the UK and other commonwealth countries, students receive raw numerical grades, which are actually pretty deflated (with an 80 or so representing an A here). I prefer this, because it gives more headroom and a lot more information about success in a course.

  • vzapana

    Let’s break down that 62-percent statistic. What percentage of grades given out in Hu classes are As? So classes? Sc classes?

    • 20155

      If they do this they should differentiate between classes for science majors and science credits for non-science majors.

  • SY

    Forty years ago Yale admitted more than 18% of applicants; now it is almost 1/3 of that number. If you take the top 1/3 of Classes ’73-’77 to represent current classes, about 50% should be getting A/A-. Also, where transcripts count, a Yale B (or 85.5) is not better than a U of NC’s A. Number grades are the worst solution to “grade inflation” and to competition (among students and faculty) and would confuse transcript comparisons. This sounds like a faculty problem among departments if virtually everyone in some courses gives/gets an A-.

    • henrycopeland

      LOL, some things HAVE changed in the last 40 years, but student quality isn’t one of them. The average college student now applies to nine schools (NYTimes), far more than before the advent of computerized copy/paste. The digital avalanche of applications rather than superior applicants drives today’s lottery-like odds.

      • Got Math?

        Nothing speaks to the self-absorbed narcissism of today’s Yale students more than the fact that they have taken a low application admission rate to mean that they are more competent than previous generations.

        Delusional students. Sad that they don’t have the mathematical instincts to grasp the impact of high school students applying to more colleges.

      • sy

        Though not a Yale student, . . . and except for today’s inane op-ed about a Coke ban in dining halls, I will defend their intellectual ability. A few years ago, 1 in 12 students had a perfect 1600 SAT; 1 in 5 had 800 math or verbal. Unless that is attributed to prep courses, their competitiveness is higher across each entire class. The top half of Yale classes was always very competitive, and the bottom half very worthy. But with a median SAT now over 1400, there probably should be some grade inflation. (Your point on mass applications is correct, but the competition still appears higher.)

        • ldffly

          35 years ago, the median SAT was 1410, if I’m not mistaken. Of course, today’s SAT is very different from year’s ago.

        • RobertMosesSupposesErroneously

          FWIW, there’s also the Flynn Effect, which observes that the national average IQ has risen about 7 points every generation – every few decades, they actually need to re-write the test to make it harder and re-calibrate “100” as average.

          Someone scoring 100 in 1940 would test as well “below average” today, and a genius back then would score only slightly above average.

          To date, there’s been no conclusive explanation for this phenomenon.

    • saracen

      Forty years ago Yale had 2/3 fewer applicants than it does today. Forty years ago the population of the US was 211 million vice 315 million. Forty years ago there were zero Chinese applicants and only a few from India or for that matter most of the rest of the world. Forty years ago competition was not a dirty word and personal responsibility had only just begun to slide down the scale of moral values. Forty years ago we had only just begun the everyone receives a trophy generations. Why wait until you face the difficulty of paying back your student loans to understand that failure is a very real possibility and that not everyone earns an A or even a B and that achieving class goals is the expected performance level and that equals a C not an A.

      • onesillyfish

        Obama is going to forgive our student loans after 10 years. The tax structure is making every one equal too. So, given that I am just as good as everyone else, and working hard doesn’t make a difference, I’ll take an A, please.

  • Tiger ’15

    Is this a joke? At Princeton, 25% of the grades are in the A-range in intro classes and I’ve only taken one that “generously” granted A-range grade to 40% of the students (and the abundance of math majors in that class sort of threw that curve off anyways). I have a 3.4 here and I’ve finished above the median in 12 of my 13 classes here and in the top 70% in all of them. Am I to believe that I would have a GPA in the 3.8-3.9 range were I to have chosen to attend Yale instead?

    • andrewyliao

      yep

  • 72bullldog

    First, the article is incorrect in saying that 40 years ago the number of As was 10%. The Preliminary Report says that in 1963 (which is 50 -not 40-years ago), the number of A equivalent grades was 10%. By 1974, the number of A equivalent grades was 40%. It has since risen to the current percentage. So the real grade inflation occurred in the latter part of the 1960s and early part of the 1970s. What had happened? Two things at least: (a) the transformation of student culture in the late ’60s and (b) the transformation of the Yale student body to a much more meritocratic population drawn from a wider base (fewer legacies, public schools etc) judging by SAT scores and GPAs.
    This is not to say that grade inflation is not something to be considered. But the dilemma for students is that many post graduate schools (law, business, medical) are driven by the US New ranking system which is so dependent on the GPAs (as well as standardized test results) of the incoming students. So Yale needs to be cautious about any impacts any change may have on the post graduate prospects of its students.

  • http://inside-higher-ed.com/ Mark Feldman

    From 1966 to 2006 total SAT scores at the Ivy League schools increased an average of about 50 points. (See [link removed].) In that same time, the SAT has been readjusted so that a verbal score of 680 in 1966 would be equivalent to 740 in 2006, and a math score of 780 would now be an 800. (See [link removed].) I believe those changes account for all of the increase in SAT scores of freshmen at top schools.

    The exact numbers don’t matter. What matters is that, according to studies reported in the book, “Academically Adrift”, students are studying less, and actually learning less. As someone who taught math for many years at Washington University in St. Louis, I am convinced that when less is required for a certification of “excellent” work, less will be achieved.

    If grade inflation, and its effect on education, is a problem at the Ivy League schools, imagine what the problem is like at the Ivy “wannabes”. They are desperate for happy consumers (once quaintly called “students”); so much so that they have even replaced grade inflation with “content deflation”. Content deflation is much easier on everyone. This is a real problem in this country.

    Clark Kerr wrote in 1980 that the “..shift from academic merit to student consumerism is one of the…greatest reversals of direction in all the history of…higher education…”

    Robert Hutchins wrote that “…when an institution determines to do something in order to get money it must lose its soul…”

    David Rieman wrote in 1980 that “…the student estate often does not grasp its own interests, and those who speak in its name are not always its friends…”

    If anyone wants to see just how bad this loss of integrity has become, read “A Tale Out of School – A Case Study in Higher Education” on my blog [link removed]

  • Jeep Cherokee

    I can see the content deflation in action. I have standardized college exams in my office. If you compare them year to year, the raw mean stays about the same. If you look at the questions, though, you notice they progressively require less knowledge, less work, and less thought. I let students see an exam from 1984 to study. It freaks them out and makes them study like mad. After they struggle to score a 50% percentile on the 1984 exam with unlimited time, a textbook, and the internet, they proceeded to score at the 65th %ile on a 2008 exam in 2 hours with just a pencil and a non-programmable calculator last year.