At Harvard College the median grade is an A-, and an A is the most frequently awarded, said Jay M. Harris a Dean of undergraduate Education on Tuesday afternoon. That supports suspicions that Harvard College engages in a softer standard of grading than many other institutions.
Dean Harris, responding to a question from government professor Harvey C. Mansfield, delivered the information at a monthly meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “A little bird has told me that the most frequently given grade at Harvard College right now is an A-,” Mansfield said during the meetings question period. “If this is true or nearly true, it represents a failure on the part of this facility and its leadership to maintain our academic standards.”
Harris stood, then looked towards the FAS Dean Michael D. Smith in hesitation. “I can answer the question, if you want me to.” Harris said. ” The median grade in Harvard College is indeed an A-. The most frequently awarded grade in Harvard College is actually a straight A.” After the meeting Harris said the data on grading standards is from Fall 2012 and several previous semesters.
According to The Harvard Crimson newspaper, after the meeting an email was sent from Mansfield stating that he was “not surprised but rather further depressed” by Harris’s answer. “Nor was I surprised at the embarrassed silence in the whole room and especially at the polished table (as I call it),” Mansfield added, making reference to table at the front of the room where the top administrators sit. “The present grading practice is indefensible.”
Classics Department Chair Mark J. Schiefsky, attended the meeting on Tuesday and he said he was surprised by how high the median grade was. “I don’t know what should be done about it, but it seems to me troubling,” Schiefsky said. “One has a range of grades to give and one would presumably expect a wider distribution.”
The comment that Harris raised Schiefsky said raised many questions about the distribution of grades and he would like more discussion on the subject. A member of the Faculty Council Classics professor Richard F. Thomas, who was also at the monthly meeting, said he expects FAS will discuss grade inflation at some point in the near future. If such a discussion is initiated it would not be without precedent at Harvard.
FAS’s Educational Policy Committee labeled grade inflation “a serious problem” in 2001 at the college, after reports in The Boston Globe labeled Harvard College’s grading practices “the laughing stock of the Ivy League.” In spite of disagreements on the nature of the problem, in 2002 the faculty replied by moving the College from a 15-point grading system to a 4.0 scale grading system and capping the number of honors graduates at 60 percent of the class. According to The Globe Newspaper in 2001 91 percent of Harvard students graduated with honors, and that half of awarded grades were in the A-range.
Grade inflation has been the issue and has taken center stage at some of Harvard’s peer institutions also. Princeton successfully restructured its grading system in 2004 and instructed professors to award grades in the A- range to no more than 35 percent of their students in undergraduate coursework and no more than 55 percent of students in junior and senior year independent study.
This change is frequently referred to as a policy of “grade deflation,” and since the change, some have theorized that the tough standards have hurt the admissions yield at Princeton. Princeton President Charles Eisgruber said this fall that the school will review its grading policy. Yale has started to discuss grading policies in the last year forming an ad hoc committee on the subject. The committee last spring found that 62 percent of grades awarded at Yale College from 2010 to 2012 were in the A- range.
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