A story in the Harvard Crimson last week reported on a meeting at the university that produced an exchange that should surprise nobody. Professor Harvey Mansfield rose in the midst of a session with faculty and administrators to pose a discomfiting question:
“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.”
Dean Michael Smith answered with the fact that the median grade is A-, but the most commonly-awarded grade is a straight A.
What does it mean when in a system with a five-part scale, with pluses and minuses added in, the most popular measure is the very top? It means that the scale is poorly calibrated and unreliable. The solution, of course, is to revise it downward so that the median score falls more closely to the center. IQ tests do the same all the time (to account for the Flynn Effect of rising scores), and the SAT has been re-normed in the other direction, too, when scores fell (mostly) in the 70s.
The A, B, C, D, F system also has to be changed–but that isn’t going to happen. it can’t, the pressures of grade inflation are too strong. Think of what happens if a professor, on his or her own, alters the yardstick. Students howl and lower course evaluations, department chairs get complaints, parents call the dean. Nobody accepts the principled professor, who ends up suffering the most.
So, the change has to be systemic, but that means entire colleges, or at least departments, have to set limits on the number of high grades allowed for each course. Princeton did this a few years ago, as the Crimson article mentions. It told professors to restrict A grades to 35 percent of the students in undergrad courses. I’m not sure how the Princeton policy has worked out, but one can immediately spot its weakness. One-third A grades leaves two-thirds for B+ grades, which might still get you to A- as the median. If outsiders complain about the minor impact fo the 35-percent rule, Princeton can always reply, “Well, these are Princeton students, you know.”
I have another suggestion. Let’s add another grade to the transcript besides the individual grade. For each course listed, show the student’s grade and also show the average grade in the course. it would give employers looking over a student’s record a better picture of ability. A B+ in a course with an average grade of B looks a lot better than an A- in a course with an average grade of A.
The averages might also put pressure on professors to exert a little more discrimination in their assessment. If they give all A’s to students, ambitious enrollees might themselves complain and pressure administrators to demand grade deflation, the opposite of what we’ve seen in the last four decades. Indeed, reform here may have to come from the students themselves, the ones who have to bear the impact of the policy. As the recipients, they have the most to gain or lose from the system, which gives them the moral standing the demand change.