NEWS THAT a straight A is the most frequently awarded grade at Harvard, and that the median grade is an A-minus, has touched off a round of soul-searching on and off that prestigious campus. By some accounts, Harvard’s generous grading reflects its unique ability to skim off the best of an ever-larger pool of applicants — and then, presumably, sit back and marvel at their work. By other accounts, Harvard is indulging pampered students’ demand for recognition. Evidence that grades have been rising for decades at many schools suggests that the upward pressure is society-wide.
Either way, two common functions of undergraduate grades — to tell students how they’re performing relative to one another, and to give grad schools and prospective employers a sense of students’ capabilities — are working at cross purposes. Even at a campus full of high-school valedictorians, some students perform at exceptional levels, and any grading system should distinguish truly inspired efforts from merely solid ones. An honest grading system can also help students figure out where their talents are greatest. But professors’ desire not to hurt students’ post-graduation prospects, while an outrage to academic purists, is also a nod to the facts of college life.
At the least, though, students need more information than they’re getting from their inflated grades. Political philosophy professor Harvey C. Mansfield, a longtime hawk on the subject, assigns letter grades according to current norms but tells students informally how he thinks they actually performed. A more systematic approach is needed. If transcripts at all colleges recorded the average grade of all students in a given course, there’d be a stigma to taking classes in which everyone gets an A. Under such a system, Harvard and other schools could go back to when the average grade was — gasp! — a B. The best work could shine, and few students would grumble about earning a B-plus.