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Harvard, other schools still fighting grade inflation

Harvard College is facing a new round of disapproval, and even ridicule, from some educators following news that the most common grade awarded is an A, more than a decade after professors pledged to combat grade inflation.

Critics say that making top grades the norm cheapens the hard work of the best students and reinforces the deluded self-regard of many members of the millennial generation.

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Yet Harvard has illustrious company among universities struggling with how to turn the tide on several decades of rising marks.

Princeton University is reconsidering the grading crackdown it instituted nine years ago, amid concerns that tougher grades are hurting Princeton graduates’ prospects for jobs and graduate school. At Yale College, where 62 percent of grades are in the A range, proposals to curb grade inflation are in doubt following student protests and faculty concern.

Grade inflation is a problem far beyond the Ivy League, although perhaps not quite as much of a problem, according to Arthur Levine, an education scholar. For his book “Generation on a Tightrope,” Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, found in a national survey that 41 percent of students had grade point averages of A-minus or higher in 2009, compared to just 7 percent in 1969.

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“Harvard is leading the nation once again,” Levine said Wednesday, with considerable irony. “This is a generation which has grown up without skinning their knees. They’ve all won awards: best trombone player born on April 25. They’re used to having approbation.

“Given inflated self-esteem, it’s not a good thing to give them high grades, because it only encourages a false sense of what they can and cannot do,” he said.

After a Boston Globe analysis in 2001 found that an astonishing 91 percent of Harvard College students were graduating with honors, officials released data showing that 48.5 percent of grades were A’s and A-minuses, compared to 33.2 percent who received those marks in 1985.

In response to the uproar that followed, the faculty capped honors — summa, magna, and cum laude — at 60 percent. They also pledged to award more B’s, a largely self-policing policy, but deans said they would notify department chairman when professors were unusually lenient or stringent. For several years, Harvard officials published annual grade statistics showing that grades were creeping upward.

In response to a professor’s question at Tuesday’s meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Jay M. Harris, dean of undergraduate education, said that the median grade awarded to undergraduates is an A-
minus, while the most frequently awarded grade is an A. The news was first reported by The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper.

Harvey C. Mansfield, a government professor who raised the issue, described an “embarrassed silence” at the meeting, where neither President Drew Faust nor the deans present commented on the issue. “Essentially, they’ve given up on it,” said Mansfield, who has long railed against grade inflation.

Still, Mansfield said, he was cheered that he received e-mails from members of the faculty council who suggested they may review the issue, asking him to write a memo to put it on their agenda.

Harris did not respond to messages Wednesday, and Harvard spokesman Jeff Neal would not comment beyond a statement saying that faculty members have elevated the importance of teaching. “We watch and review trends in grading across Harvard College, but we are most interested in helping our students learn and learn well,” he said.

The Crimson editorialized Wednesday against any rigid grading policy, suggesting that rising grades are “due in part to the rising quality of the undergraduates themselves.”

Many professors are relatively sanguine about grade inflation. Harry Lewis, former dean of Harvard College, wrote in his 2006 book, “Excellence without a Soul,” that grades are meant to be a motivational device to help students learn and should not be seen mainly as credentials for external consumption.

“The pressure for ‘meaningful’ and stiff grading is anti-educational,” he wrote, noting that handwringing at Harvard about too many A’s dates to at least 1894.

A few universities emphasize strict grading, or what students unhappily call “grade deflation.” Boston University has been known for difficult grading for many years.

In 2004, Princeton set guidelines to limit departments to awarding no more than 35 percent of their grades in the A range.

But this fall, Princeton president Christopher L. Eisgruber asked a committee to review the policy and whether it has “unintended impacts upon the undergraduate academic experience.”

According to the student newspaper, the Daily Princetonian, Eisgruber acknowledged that there is concern that the policy might be affecting the percentage of admitted students who choose to enroll at Princeton.

Princeton economics professor Uwe E. Reinhardt said “good riddance” to students who do not want to come to Princeton because it is harder to get an A.

But he worries about whether Princeton graduates suffer when they apply to graduate schools. Programs that use software to reject applications below a certain GPA would put Princeton students at a disadvantage, he said.

Reinhardt said he was proud that Princeton has maintained grading standards, while Harvard “has a lot of egg on its face.”

“Here we have a system of numbers by which important decisions about human beings are made, about their future,” he said, “and those numbers are so lousy that academics should blush over even publishing them.”

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@
globe.com
. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeMarcella.
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