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Harvard Professor Concerned about Grade Inflation

soxfan99soxfan99 119 replies6 postsRegistered User Junior Member
edited December 2013 in Harvard University
Harvard professor raises concerns about grade inflation - Boston.com

"Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education informed Mansfield at the meeting that the most frequent grade is an A, citing data from fall 2012 and several prior semesters, the Harvard Crimson reported.

Jeff Neal, a Harvard spokesman, confirmed the accuracy of the data, in a statement to the Globe."
edited December 2013
94 replies
Post edited by soxfan99 on
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Replies to: Harvard Professor Concerned about Grade Inflation

  • momofthreeboysmomofthreeboys 16617 replies66 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    Well duh...it starts in most high schools and continues into many colleges.
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  • sm74sm74 740 replies4 postsRegistered User Member
    I guess this professor didn't get the e-mail about not using the word merit. My idea would be to add a degree of difficulty multiplier to a grade. Organic Chemistry gets a 1.8 multiplier and introduction to badmiton gets a .3.
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  • HuntHunt 26787 replies131 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    It is a problem if A is the most frequent grade given. It's not a problem if A is the most frequent grade earned.
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  • jonrijonri 7270 replies134 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    Mansfield has been complaining about grade inflation from Harvard for at least 20 years.

    There IS grade inflation--no doubt about it. I think the fairest way to deal with what I see as the most important issue--the failure to distinguish truly exemplary work--is to introduce the A+. Some schools have them. Harvard does not. They should be very rare.
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  • apprenticeprofapprenticeprof 900 replies3 postsRegistered User Member
    I've been vocal before about my opposition to grade inflation, and I don't doubt that there are any number of statistics about it - especially in the humanities - that would bother me, but this is a pretty meaningless one.

    Unless I'm reading this wrong, an "A" is the mode grade given at Harvard, not the median. Theoretically, the grade distribution could be 25 % A, 15 % A -, 24 % B +, 20 % B, and 16 % B - and lower.

    Granted, given that I doubt that 40 % of the grades in STEM courses are A - range, even that distribution probably means that there's rampant grade inflation in other departments, especially given that some of the easier departments also attract lesser students, and so should theoretically have fewer As. As a raw number, however, there would be nothing particularly alarming about the above range given a school populated by very bright people

    Of course, I don't know what the actual numbers are, but without them, the article doesn't tell us much.
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  • MaterSMaterS 1809 replies51 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    90% of the class graduates with honors.
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  • HuntHunt 26787 replies131 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    apprenticeprof, the problem with your rationale is that Harvard doesn't really have many "lesser students." This is why, to me, worrying about grade inflation at someplace like Harvard is a waste of energy.
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  • ucbalumnusucbalumnus 77103 replies671 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    National Trends in Grade Inflation, American Colleges and Universities has listings of colleges at the bottom of the page.

    Harvard had average grades of 3.45 in 2005.
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  • jonrijonri 7270 replies134 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    We've had some interesting conversations about this on the law board.

    I think a surprising number of people think that the distribution of grades at all colleges should be the same, i.e., that the local community college and Harvard should have the same median GPA and the same grade distribution. They think that students should be judged "in context," so an average student at the CC should get a C and the average student at Harvard should get a C.

    Thus, some honors are distributed equally. For example, to be PBK, you usually have to be in the top 10% of students in the liberal arts. It doesn't matter whether you attend Harvard or Manhattan College. (I'm not knocking MC; I'm just saying that, while there may be a handful of students there who would also be outstanding at H, it's likely that there are some in the top 10% who wouldn't be top 10% at H.) Each college can nominate 4 students for Goldwater Scholarships. To BE a nominee from MIT is INCREDIBLY competitive. Some of the students who don't get nominations could probably be scholars if they attended another college.

    The problem is that most government jobs and a lot of others use GPA cut-offs. They are unwilling to say "I'm more impressed with a 2.9 from Harvard than a 3.0 from East Directional State." I've watched the families of 2 engineering students at UMich sweating because their kids had below 3.0 GPAs at UMich. Apparently, the median GPA , at least for the first 2 years, for engineers is sub-3.0. One student managed to get her GPA well above 3.0 by graduation day. The other got a great job because he did an internship which lead to the job. This same student could not get a government internship because his 2.95 (about that) didn't make the 3.0 cut off.

    When we play this make believe game that the student bodies at every college are created equal, we sort of force the most competitive colleges to inflate grades.

    I'm a lawyer. One of the interesting things LSAC (Law School Admissions Council) does is compute a GPA for all applicants using uniform rules. This isn't perfect, but it tries to make GPA at least somewhat uniform. It also calculates the median GPA of all the applicants from a given college and the distribution of grades. It calculates the median LSAT and the distribution of LSATs. All of these are only calculated based on people who submit actual transcripts to LSAC.

    Law schools get a "quick check" for grade inflation by comparing the median LSAT and median GPA for each school. AFAIK, Harvard has had the highest median LSAT every year since they started keeping data 40+ years ago.

    That means, using the LSAC folks theorectical framework, that Harvard applicants OUGHT to have the highest median GPA. While the GPA median should NOT be as inflated as it is, the way LSAC measures grade inflation, H is nowhere near as grade inflated as some of the state Us.

    Yes, state Us have some brilliant students. And, yes, they have lower GPAs. But, is it really wrong to say that if all Harvard students and all SUNY Oswego students attended the same college classes, IN THE AGGREGATE the Harvard students would have higher GPAs than the SUNY Oswego students?

    When students at College X have a median LSAT score of 166 and students at College Y have a median LSAT score of 149, is it really unfair for College X to give out more As than College B? If you want to put it in terms of SAT scores, is it fair for a school where the median SAT score (M+V) is 980 to have the same "curve" as a college with a median SAT of 1500?

    If the federal government and many employers, as well as some law schools and some med schools treat all GPAs as if they are alike, no matter where they were earned, is it surprising that there is pressure on top colleges to inflate grades?
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  • turtletimeturtletime 1237 replies12 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    I'm not sure why Harvard would be worried about this. It's one of the most selective schools in the country taking in largely "perfect" kids (academically.) Why wouldn't the majority continue to get "A's." You take a class and either master the material or not. If the majority are getting "A's" and not mastering the material then you have a real problem. If most are getting "A's" AND mastery then what... the class too easy? Is that the concern?

    I don't disagree that grade inflation is a problem at the high school level. So much of the grade is based on needless homework assignments and even attendance. You shouldn't get to pass a class when you can't pass a single test (and we've seen that happen.)

    Maybe the real issue is grading in college period. I'm not saying to get rid of accountability. I know that it's not realistic to give personalized reports on progress for every kid in every school. I can't attest to have an actual answer.. only that if you want to distinguish between the kids who can learn 90+ percent of the material in the top schools in the country then maybe a traditional grading system isn't the answer.
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  • VladenschlutteVladenschlutte 4292 replies37 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    When students at College X have a median LSAT score of 166 and students at College Y have a median LSAT score of 149, is it really unfair for College X to give out more As than College B? If you want to put it in terms of SAT scores, is it fair for a school where the median SAT score (M+V) is 980 to have the same "curve" as a college with a median SAT of 1500?

    The differences are so vast though. Certainly it wouldn't be worthwhile for every school to have the same balance because if they did the average GPA at Harvard would be a 3.9 and the average GPA at Eastern Michigan would be a 1.0. At that point, why bother assigning grades at all?
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  • ucbalumnusucbalumnus 77103 replies671 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    turtletime wrote:
    if you want to distinguish between the kids who can learn 90+ percent of the material in the top schools in the country then maybe a traditional grading system isn't the answer.

    The traditional grading scale is probably something like this for students at those schools, or pre-med or pre-law students:

    A = Acceptable
    B = Bad
    C = Catastrophic
    D = Disastrous
    F = Forget it
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  • MadaboutxMadaboutx 1583 replies9 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    They should go to high pass, pass, fail system of grading. If elite schools continue to be highly selective then a letter grade doesn't matter. All the kids at Harvard, Yale and Princeton are very smart kids. Stop making them compete for GPAs and start truly educating them. I think that begins with a system that says, "Ok, we know you all are smart. Now let's learn some really interesting stuff."
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  • turtletimeturtletime 1237 replies12 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    UCBalumnus... just had to giggle at your post. I have no doubt that is how it's seen lol.
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  • jonrijonri 7270 replies134 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    Unfortunately, grades are used for all these other purposes--like hiring and admission to law and medical schools, and, to a lesser extent, graduate programs.

    Prospective law and med students are often guilty of skipping any class where there's ANY possibiity of getting any grade below a B+. The law students on the law boards are constantly telling law school aspirants to take the easiest courses they can to inflate their GPAs.
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  • rmldadrmldad 1253 replies48 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    My daughter attends a highly selective university with two undergraduate colleges: liberal arts and engineering. During the first two years for a typical incoming class, more than 30% of the students admitted to the engineering college will transfer to liberal arts while a negligible number will transfer in to the engineering college. The most common reason (overwhelmingly so) for transferring out of engineering: coursework is too difficult.

    All freshmen at this university are evaluated and admitted as one class. While a holistic review process is used, the objective qualifications (test scores and GPA) are measurably higher for the engineering college. Thus, the joke that a transfer from engineering to liberal arts raises the test scores for both colleges.

    So, one college is (theoretically) harder to gain admission and harder coursework while enrolled. Which college has the higher GPA students? Liberal arts, and by a wide margin.

    DD was told by her Pre-Professional advisor that if she wanted to go to Med school, it would be a mistake to study engineering simply because of grade inflation.
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  • mathmommathmom 32115 replies158 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    LOL. Mansfield is still at it? He was singing this song in the 1970s.

    I think Harvard should go back to their old system of accepting lots of dumb legacies who were happy to get C's and work for Daddy when they graduated.
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  • cobratcobrat 12207 replies78 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    While the majority of Harvard students are highly capable academically, employers from what I've seen tend to use grades as a proxy for work ethic, not necessarily intelligence.

    As some HR/supervisors I've worked with said, they don't care for grade inflation because "it obscures the ones with really high work ethic from those who are smart, but lazy or sometimes lucky, but dense." They would prefer to minimize the hiring of the latter two types of applicants as much as possible.

    Moreover, as several instructor/TF friends…including some who TFed graduate courses have observed, there are some surprisingly lazy and/or dense students at Harvard.

    One instructor found this to be a common tendency among legacy and athletes in the 20+years of teaching there back in the late '90s.

    A former older roommate and close friend had a sad tale about a 3rd year grad student who didn't bother showing up for most of the semester or doing most of the work in a class he was TFing.

    Said friend was surprised the Prof even bothered to consider whether he should take that slacking doctoral student's weak excuses/pleadings seriously and pass him when by rights, he should be flunked. The TFs…including my friend were unanimous, the doctoral student should be flunked. He later related to me that at his undergrad college, the Prof wouldn't even bother to consider such excuses/pleadings if an undergrad pulled the same BS there.
    Thus, the joke that a transfer from engineering to liberal arts raises the test scores for both colleges.

    So, one college is (theoretically) harder to gain admission and harder coursework while enrolled. Which college has the higher GPA students? Liberal arts, and by a wide margin.

    This is not necessarily universal. For instance, back in the '90s and earlier, it was actually easier for students strong in STEM with lower HS GPAs and lower SATs(Assuming near perfect/perfect math SATs) to get into Columbia SEAS than Columbia College for undergrad.

    As a result of that and a past policy of allowing students to transition from one division to another after a year in good standing and some formality-type paperwork, many HS classmates and others from schools like BxScience would use admission to Columbia's Engineering school as an "easier" backdoor to the harder to get in and the perceived more prestigious Columbia College. After a year of work in good standing, they filled out formality-forms and were approved as administrative transfers.

    However, so many took advantage of this that I heard from later Columbia students that Columbia U no longer allows such an easy transition between the engineering and A & S divisions. Now, such internal transfers have to compete directly with external transfers making it much harder for engineering majors who find out they want to major in an A & S field to change majors without transferring out.
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  • HuntHunt 26787 replies131 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    Moreover, as several instructor/TF friends…including some who TFed graduate courses have observed, there are some surprisingly lazy and/or dense students at Harvard.
    This may be true, but they are a tiny handful, and they are the ones who aren't getting As now. The fact is that the vast majority of students at the most selective schools already have a strong work ethic, because they don't get admitted unless they have already accomplished a lot both in and out of the classroom. This is marginally less true for hooked students, but even they are greatly above average.
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  • coasecoase 618 replies33 postsRegistered User Member
    Unless I'm reading this wrong, an "A" is the mode grade given at Harvard, not the median. Theoretically, the grade distribution could be 25 % A, 15 % A -, 24 % B +, 20 % B, and 16 % B - and lower.

    Your example does not quite work because the median grade is an A-, which means the percentage of As must exceed 25.
    Report: Grade Inflation Persists | News | The Harvard Crimson
    So, one college is (theoretically) harder to gain admission and harder coursework while enrolled. Which college has the higher GPA students? Liberal arts, and by a wide margin.

    At Yale, their study of grading suggested something similar. The departments whose majors entered with the highest academic indexes gave out the lowest grades. So, there was a negative correlation between perceived quality of majors (students) and grades.
    The least generous grading departments have on average majors with higher academic indices.
    http://yalecollege.yale.edu/sites/default/files/Ad%20Hoc%20YC%20Grading%20Committee%20Report%20-%20Feb%202013.pdf
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