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Archive for Saturday, December 1, 2001

The palls of ivy

December 1, 2001

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What's with Harvard's apparent grade inflation tendency?

What's going on in the hallowed ivy-covered walls of Harvard University, noted for its production of outstanding educational experiences? Has grade inflation hit some prestige schools again, and if so, for what reason?

An Associated Press report says that nearly half of all grades at Harvard last year were A or A-minus, a steep increase from just 10 years earlier. The finding followed a study checking on disturbing reports of grade inflation at the famed Ivy League institution.

The report charted grades for the past 15 years and found that A-grades and A-minuses grew from 33.2 percent of all grades in 1985 to 48.5 percent last year. Failing grades, such as D's and C's accounted for less than 6 percent of the marks.

One rather flimsy explanation by Susan Pederson, dean of undergraduate education: "With such a narrow range of grades available, faculty find it difficult to distinguish adequately between work of differing quality; they may also be unable to make such distinctions clear to students."

Since when, and what in the world does that mean? The "range" has never been so narrow before, and shouldn't be now. Who is currying favor with whom and why? What kind of politicking is in progress under the guise of study? Whatever happened to demanding teachers who refuse to sell out?

The highest rate of A's almost two-thirds of the grades given was awarded in Harvard's small humanities classes. Social science classes with 75 students or more were the toughest, with a third of all students receiving A's or A-minuses.

Some of the factors driving teachers' generosity with grades, we are told, were pressure to grade similarly to colleagues, fear of becoming known as a "tough grader" and pressure from students accustomed to higher grades, the Harvard study said.

In October, the Boston Globe reported that nine in 10 Harvard students graduated with honors, which takes at least a B-minus average in the student's major. By comparison, honors went to 51 percent of graduates at Yale and 44 percent at Princeton. Other Ivy League universities also had a much lower rate of honors students than Harvard.

Good teachers everywhere should be incensed at such foolishness. Since when have students been so "well-prepared" or "sensitive" that they are programmed for honors unless they fully deserve them?

During the Vietnam War period, professors at many schools, including some at Kansas University, inflated grades to make sure students could stay in school, maintaining education deferments and escaping military service. The war has been over for well over 25 years and there no longer is a military draft.

The Harvard Crimson football team recently completed its first undefeated, untied record since 1913. It might not be long before some elitist alumni launch probes to see if athletics are being over-emphasized. However, it seems it would be far better if those skeptics looked at what is happening in the halls of academe and why so many are getting such high grades for what might be too little in the way of input.

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