“The median grade in Harvard College is indeed an A-,” the school’s dean of education said today, according to the student newspaper. Even more stunning: “The most frequently awarded grade in Harvard College is actually a straight A.”
That ought to dispel any notion that Harvard is tough on its students. Grade inflation may be a victimless crime, but what is the point of having a range of grades if half of them are A- or higher?
Accusations of grade inflation flare up frequently at Harvard and other college campuses. Harvard, in particular, has been accused of grading more softly than some of its rivals in the Ivy League.
Larry Summers, the former US Treasury secretary, was highly critical of the practice while he was president of the university. After he stepped down, he told an interviewer: “Ninety percent of Harvard graduates graduated with honors when I started. The most unique honor you could graduate with was none.”There are clear incentives to inflate grades. For professors, it makes life easier to just give everybody an A. Nobody complains about getting an undeserved A. For institutions, your graduates are more competitive in graduate school admissions if they have "perfect" transcripts. What if Harvard suddenly decided that all professors had to make their mean grade a 75, with a standard deviation of 10? Then the top law schools, med schools, and business schools would be full of Yale, Princeton, and Stanford grads.
The problem is that these grades are meaningless to the student. If you get an A, you tend to think that you mastered the subject at hand. But what if everyone in the class got an A? Does that mean that everyone mastered the subject equally well? Of course not.
Even at Harvard, there is significant variation among students with regard to talent and effort and it irks the psychometrician in me that letter grades are not differentiating the more talented and harder working from their counterparts. The simplest solution would be to abandon letter grades and to issue grades on a 60 to 100 scale. Those 90 to 100 scores would all still be As and A minuses, but there could be a big difference between a 91 and a 98.
A class ranking system would be far superior than traditional letter grades in most courses. Give everybody As, sure -- but make sure that each student is clear that his A means that he was, for example, 17th best out of 34 students.