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Harvard Looking to Revise Grading, Honors Policy

By Brian Loux


In the film With Honors, a Harvard student works his tail off in hopes of getting a Harvard diploma “with honors,” but in the end, he falls short of his goal.

Of course, life is never like the movies. In reality, he would have almost certainly received his Harvard degree with honors, along with 91 percent of his fellow classmates.

National media scrutiny over this fact has pushed the Harvard community to make a panicked rush for grade reform. Harvard administrators and faculty are hoping to alter the school’s grading policy to stop what has widely been termed as an inflation of student grades.

Today, all departments of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard will submit grading practice summaries to the Educational Policy Committee, who will use them to determine how to make grades less skewed towards higher letters. The committee is expected to form policies by the end of Harvard’s spring term.

“Fundamentally, the EPC sees the grade as a pedagogical tool -- a tool that both distinguishes between work of differing quality and motivates all students to work their hardest,” said Andrea Shen, a member of the Harvard News Office.

Recent reports show that Harvard student grades are at their highest ever, with half of all undergraduate grades either an “A” or “A-”.

At the meeting of the Committee on Undergraduate Education on Jan. 30, a proposal was made to eliminate the “cum laude” honor for general studies, which was awarded to over 25 percent of Harvard graduates last year. The meeting also discussed the current status of grade inflation.

In addition to a massive volition to reform policy, some students have said that because of the debates and media focus, some professors have vowed to grade harsher in the future regardless of what formal reforms take place.

Students oppose faculty opinion

While most students feel unsettled about the large numbers of their schoolmates graduating with honors, many disagree with the notion that grade inflation is a serious problem. In a recent poll administered by The Crimson, a student newspaper at Harvard, fewer than 25 percent of Harvard students felt that grade inflation was significant enough to warrant an administrative response.

“At a school with a cut-throat admissions department that only accepts about 10 percent of its applicant pool and maintains an average incoming SAT score of over 1500, it is not at all surprising that a large percentage of the student body might submit high quality work on a regular basis,” wrote Arianne R. Cohen in an editorial for The Crimson. “Students should receive the grades they deserve. If half those grades are ‘As’, so be it.”

“I hear both from The Crimson and people here that most are against changing policy, so I am in the minority here,” said Harvard sophomore Margaret B. Hoppin, who said she was amazed that other students are not behind grade reformation. “If you compare grades to 20 years ago, they are much higher. ... It would be much more interesting to work in an environment that reflects the quality of your work,” Hoppin said. “I think the system would be so much more effective for us, our employers, and our parents if we changed this.”

Grade inflation hard to change

Many proponents of grade reform cite “grade compression,” or limiting grades to a range of “A” to “B-”, as detrimental because it negates the value and purpose of rated work.

“The range of a legitimate grade is ‘A’ to ‘A-’ where in other countries the range would also include ‘C’ to ‘C’ minus. Getting a ‘C’ in a European school is something that does not equate to total failure, yet ‘Cs’ are hard to come by here,” Hoppin said.

Some feel that stricter standards and grading curves will hurt the students who are familiar with the present policy. “I think there is a sense of competition amongst students,” Hoppin said. “If the grades changed now and the mentality stays the same, the competition would rise, and it would be bad for the first round of students.”

Presumably, a change in grading policy will cause a change in the number of degrees given with honors. Harvard has a multi-level honors system. On one level, one can receive an honors degree in his or her concentration. However, it is also possible to graduate with honors based on overall grade point average, which is a broader honors degree. Many are upset that this yields too high a percentage of students and belittles the achievements of those who excel in their concentration.

“Faculty [members] continue to discuss honors degrees and the criteria for such at Harvard,” Shen said. “They will continue in serious consideration of this matter as this semester unfolds.”

MIT students against honors

Student opinion on this issue is also split here at MIT, though most students are against the way things presently worked at Harvard.

“If they’re going to use the honors system, they need to make it mean something,” said Hans C. Raj ’04.

Others agree with most Harvard students. “I don’t know that anyone should fail a class when they go to Harvard because they have been working hard since high school,” said Amanda K Sorenson ’04. “Harvard has to keep producing top-notch students. Perhaps they should use objective tests to see how students are performing.”

Many prefer MIT’s academic system, which does not confer any honors.

“I like that MIT does not have an honors diploma,” Raj said. “It is already a competitive school. To make students compete even more wouldn’t be good.”

“By long tradition MIT has not honors degree,” said Dean for Undergraduate Education Robert P. Redwine. “An MIT degree is an honor by itself, and we encourage our students to view other students as colleagues in learning and not rivals.”

Raj did think that an altered honors diploma might work for MIT. “Maybe there could be one here,” he said, “but only for the very elite well rounded kids who have also done community service and extracurricular activities.”

Sorenson disagreed, saying that MIT should have “none whatsoever.” Harvard’s examination of its own grades brings up the question of MIT’s grading policy.

“In general I am comfortable that the grades our students receive properly reflect their knowledge of the subject,” Redwine said. “We certainly have not experienced the change in average grade that some institutions have.”