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Grade inflation again a major issue at Harvard University and in the Ivy League

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At the end of each semester grades are all that university students are thinking of when they finish their papers and take final exams, but for students at some of the top Ivy League universities have a little less to worry about; they are almost guaranteed As. Harvard University's Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris admitted on Dec. 4, 2013 that at Harvard's undergraduate college the average is A-, while As are the grade most usually awarded. The admission proved that the university still readily practices grade inflation, sparking a new discussion on the controversial topic.

The subject of Harvard College's high grading was brought up by Government Professor Harvey C. Mansfield at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences monthly meeting. Mansfield is a longtime opponent of grade inflation at the university, and this was not the first time the Government Professor has exposed and embarrassed the university about their little secret.

Mansfield asked Dean Harris about the average grade awarded; "A little bird has told me that the most frequently given grade at Harvard College right now is an A-. 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."

The question prompted Harris to respond to Mansfield and FAS Dean Michael D. Smith; "I can answer the question, if you want me to. The median grade in Harvard College is indeed an A-. The most frequently awarded grade in Harvard College is actually a straight A."

Apparently the admission resulted in silence among the university deans and administrators present at the meeting. Professor Mansfield later spoke to the student run newspaper, the Harvard Crimson about what transpired at the meeting, he said he was "not surprised but rather further depressed… Nor was I surprised at the embarrassed silence in the whole room and especially at the polished table (as I call it). The present grading practice is indefensible."

This is not the first time Harvard University has received bad press about grade inflation. The controversial subject reared its ugly head the last time in 2001 however, Harvard been the focus of grade inflation accusations since grade inflation began to become a concern in the 1960s. In the 1960s grades were inflated as a result of affirmative action, and as a means of helping students defer the Vietnam War draft. The website GradeInflation.com has been tracking the grading trends of all universities and was founded by former Duke University professor Stuart Rojstaczer.

In October 2001 the Boston Globe exposed the grade inflation problem at the university in an article entitled "Harvard's Quiet Secret: Rampant Grade Inflation." The Globe determined that 91 percent of Harvard seniors graduated with honors, with 50 percent of the students receiving marks in the A range. The Globe concluded that Harvard was "the laughing stock of the Ivy League." In a follow-up article "Low, high marks for grade inflation," published on the same day in the Globe, the centerpiece of this article was the same Professor Mansfield and the experiment in his class exposing the extent of the inflation, and the inability to get the policy changed.

In 2002, the accusation prompted a response from then Principal Lawrence Summers and the university's Educational Policy Committee (EPC) reacted with a report that condemned the practice, and admitted that it was "a serious problem" and made minor variations to the grading system to prevent the disproportionate number of high grade from becoming a reputation problem. The new rules moved the university away from the 15-point system to the 4-point system prevalent at most North American universities. They also capped the number of students that graduated with honors, either "summa, magna, and cum laude" to 60 percent. For the first years after the changes statistics were published, but as time went by the policy reverted back to a lax grading system.

Unlike 2001 and 2002 when grade inflation was exposed at Harvard, university administrators are choosing not to even remark about the common practice, as Professor Mansfield lamented; "Essentially, they've given up on it." While a number of professors defended the practice especially because they do not believe it affects student's leaning. Andrew D. Gordon, Professor of History and East Asian Languages and Civilizations told the Harvard Crimson; "We use the evaluation process to promote learning. Unless there is a feeling among the faculty-and I don't think there is-that students aren't learning, than I don't think we will be too concerned about grade distribution."

Shifting the focus on learning and away from the inflated grades is apparently the chosen method to deal with the most recent discovery. Harvard spokesman Jeff Neal confirmed to the ever interested Boston Globe about the grade averages in the A range. Neal told the Globe; "In recent years, the [Faculty of Arts and Sciences] . . . have reemphasized and elevated the importance of teaching and learning in our mission to the benefit of the undergraduates at Harvard College. We believe that learning is the most important thing that happens in our classrooms and throughout our system of residential education. The faculty are focused on creating positive and lasting learning outcomes for our undergraduates."

The students' view was represented by a Harvard Crimson editorial that defended the high grades at the university, saying they were not a product of grade inflation, but "due in part to the rising quality of the undergraduates themselves." However, could was there be a doubt that student's would actually oppose high marks and want the university to lower them.

Yale University's grade inflation percentages are not as high as Harvard, but still show easy As are a high probability for its students. After a university committee reviewed the grades in the Spring of 2012, they determined that from 2010 to 2012, "62 percent of the grades awarded in Yale College" were within "the A range," and the "top 30 percent" of the students had GPAs above 3.8 percent which is "the cutoff for Latin honors." According Robert McGuire's Sept/Oct 2013 article published in Yale Alumni Magazine entitled "Grade expectations" the grade inflation reached a point that "In some departments, there's almost no room left in the scale for inflation."

After the discovery, Yale College formed the "Yale College Ad Hoc Committee on Grading" that issued four recommendations in their April 2012 report. Two of the recommendations required that chairs of departments would be required to submit grade reports and make grade average statistics public "to the faculty." There were two additional suggestions that would change the grading policy, one to "exchange the currency" translate the letter grades to a number system, and another capping grade distributions "along a curve" similar to Princeton's system.

Only the first two non-invasive recommendations were adapted, springing for a grade policy change like Princeton seemed too drastic, and sparked an immediate outcry from students. With the Yale College Council President Daniel Avraham '15 arguing; "There are several natural trends that contribute, and it isn't just that professors are too generous." In their ever competition with Harvard, how would Yale keep up, if there were no grade caps there? The committee concluded; "grade compression discourages students from working their hardest, 'muddies the effectiveness of grades as signals to outside organizations.'"

Still as of present they are discussing and considering revising their grade policy as Tina Lu, the chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures, who spear headed the examination expressed; "This college-wide conversation is a critical step. Nothing is more important than having the data and beginning to talk about why we assign the grades we do." Especially now that Princeton is considering reversing their policy, Yale will not want to take the cold lead against inflated marks.

Princeton University has been remaining above the fray in part, because of limits imposed in a 2004 revised grading policy. Aimed at curbing grade inflation, Princeton limited the number of As that can be granted to undergraduate students, capping it at 35 percent for lecture courses, and allowing a larger percentage, 55 percent to junior and seniors doing independent research and theses. The unpopular policy among students became known as "grade deflation."

That policy is now under fire, Princeton is concerned they are losing applicants, because students claim they are not able to compete with universities that allow grade inflation for graduate programs and professional programs admissions and in the job force. A study published PLOS ONE in July 2013 and conducted by "University of California-Berkeley and Harvard Business School researchers" indicated that Princeton students are at a disadvantage because of the grade deflation policy.

The pressure means that Princeton is considering revising their policy; Princeton President Charles Eisgruber stated that the university was intending to look into it, because the policies have had "unintended impacts upon the undergraduate experience that are not consistent with our broader educational goals." President Eisgruber also announced in October 2013 that a committee was formed to review the present grading policy, and they would make any decisions at the end of the academic year.

Both professors and students acknowledge grade inflation is practiced, and this time nothing might be done to change that. At such high prices for tuition, students attending the Ivy League believe they deserve high marks for the price and for attending such esteemed universities, and the opportunities that graduating from them affords them. As Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and author of "Generation on a Tightrope" commented; "Harvard is leading the nation once again. This is a generation… used to having approbation."

The universities need to attract the best and brightest students, grade inflation helps with recruitment. Professors are motivated by student evaluations, the more positive the review the further professors go in their careers. It does more than that, higher marks among their university students and the professors leads to higher ranking and esteem for the university. The more their students succeed the more elevated the university's standing. Just this past November Harvard student's amassed the most Rhodes Scholarships than any other university with six students; Yale tied with Stanford University with three, while Princeton only had two students.

As Princeton experienced, being right about grades resulted in a backlash, with less students willing to apply and attend, because they know they will not have the same opportunities as students graduating from Harvard or Yale, because Princeton caps their grades. Harvard and Yale are not going to risk their universities' success and reputation to make a stand on grades, and Princeton is now reconsidering rejoining the party. Unless all the Ivy League and top universities will take a united stand on grade inflation, it is unlikely Harvard take any action, despite their secret being exposed again.

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