Friday, December 6, 2013

Grade Inflation at Harvard

A certain item hit the news here, here, here, here, here, and here. It concerns a request by the distinguished Harvard University professor Harvey Mansfield. He asked at a monthly meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard.
“A little bird has told me that the most frequently given grade at Harvard College right now is an A-,” Mansfield said during the meeting’s question period. “If this is true or nearly true, it represents a failure on the part of this faculty and its leadership to maintain our academic standards.”

[Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M.] Harris then stood and looked towards 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.”

Harris said after the meeting that the data on grading standards is from fall 2012 and several previous semesters.

In an email to The Crimson after the meeting, Mansfield wrote 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, referencing the table at the front of the room where top administrators sit. “The present grading practice is indefensible.”
Mansfield is not the only faculty member concerned.
Classics Department chair Mark J. Schiefsky, who was in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting, 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.”

Schiefsky said Harris’s comment raised a number of questions about the distribution of grades and that he would appreciate more discussion about the topic.
Harvard is not the only ivy-league school to have a problem.
In a review last spring, [an ad hoc Yale] committee found that 62 percent of grades awarded at Yale College from 2010 to 2012 were in the A-range.
The problem is not limited to the ivy leagues, but general throughout higher education. Mansfield has an interesting interim solution.
Mansfield said the issue of grade inflation, while not new and not isolated to Harvard, has become routine and has an adverse effect on standards and on the most talented students, whose merit goes unrecognized.

Mansfield described how, in recent years, he himself has taken to giving students two grades: one that shows up on their transcript and one he believes they actually deserve.

“I didn’t want my students to be punished by being the only ones to suffer for getting an accurate grade,” he said, adding that administrators must take the lead in curbing the trend.
In grading, as in so much else in this life, we do not always get what we deserve.