Skip to comments.Harvard's quiet secret: rampant grade inflation
Posted on 10/07/2001 9:39:03 AM PDT by 2TrieversEdited on 04/13/2004 2:06:54 AM PDT by Jim Robinson. [history]
CAMBRIDGE - Trevor Cox is in the throes of his greatest challenge at Harvard University: A senior honors thesis about Abraham Lincoln's wartime attorney general. It's exciting and gut-churning, he says; it's also his first Harvard paper that doesn't feel like a sham.
(Excerpt) Read more at boston.com ...
Low, high marks for grade inflation
By Patrick Healy, Globe Staff, 10/7/2001
CAMBRIDGE - More than a few Harvard egos took a beating last spring in Harvey C. Mansfield's Government 1061 course on modern political philosophy.
Professor Mansfield, a Machiavelli scholar and Harvard's resident gadfly on the subject of grade inflation, said he tried to reclaim ''my own integrity'' by giving C's and even D's for work that deserved C's and D's.
On the first day of class, Mansfield told his 100 students that he would give them two grades: One ''official'' mark - usually an A or B pumped up by Harvard's inflationary trend - and a second grade that reflected the actual quality of their work and effort.
The stunt amused most students at first. But as they started to hear that B-plus papers were really C-minus-level work, some of them blushed, some felt annoyed, and a few others just laughed.
''The pain without the consequence'' was how one government major described the two-grade policy in a year-end evaluation of Mansfield. ''It reminds us of what true grades would be.''
''While I like a guaranteed B, it diminished my incentive to attend class, section, or do the reading,'' a male freshman said.
''He's too smug,'' a junior wrote. ''Loosen up.''
Mansfield provided the Globe with the results of the two-grade policy, as well as his students' anonymous evaluations of him, to provide a glimpse into one Harvard classroom that is openly dealing with grade inflation.
The official final grades of the class were: A, 25 percent; A-minus, 26 percent; B-plus, 22 percent; B and lower, 27 percent.
The deflated grades, meant to show where Mansfield concluded students really stood in class, broke down this way: A and A-minus, 10 percent; B-plus, 15 percent; B and B-minus, 25 percent; C-plus, 25 percent; C and lower, 25 percent.
''Students who did good work were told they deserved a B, and yet, by Harvard standards, they would do even better,'' Mansfield said.
Harvard College has no single grading scale, and Mansfield could give lower grades if he wanted, as some professors do. But he says this would unfairly penalize his students who compete against classmates for honors and spots in graduate school.
A cultural conservative who likes to take shots at the more liberal Harvard establishment, Mansfield said he wanted to hold his colleagues and administration up to ridicule. But he also hoped to embarrass them into taking collective action to make grading more rigorous.
Some students, colleagues, and fellow conservatives lavished praise on him. ''Your daring bravery in confronting the prejudiced philistinism of the administration is admirable to the extreme,'' Harvard biology professor Kenneth Boss wrote.
Yet Mansfield's own tactics have hurt him, too.
When he announced his two-grade policy, he also said he believed Harvard grade inflation began in the late 1960s when professors gave higher-than-deserved grades to new black students to boost self-esteem. Mansfield, a critic of affirmative action, offered no hard proof, and many disgusted students and officials attacked him for advancing what college dean Harry Lewis called ''the dumb-blacks theory.''
Even those concerned about grade inflation denied Mansfield any support. In one e-mail, Susan Pederson, dean of undergraduate education, told the professor that his crusade would inevitably flounder because of ''the acrimonious and pointless discussion about the causes of our current grading practices.''
Lewis also sent a series of e-mails to Mansfield on the matter. By turns friendly and snippy, Lewis, a computer scientist, said that he, too, was wary of grade inflation, and laid part of the blame on lax humanities professors. But he also said today's students were better than the previous generation's: Many freshmen in his classes have perfect math SAT scores, and half of them can solve math problems today that only a few could handle in 1980.
And even though, as dean of the college, he looks out for students' education, Lewis wrote Mansfield that he cannot make changes to grading because of the faculty's powerful dean, Jeremy Knowles.
''As you know I have nothing to do with faculty policy; Jeremy has made sure of that,'' Lewis wrote.
Knowles and Lewis referred questions about grading to Pederson, who said she cannot reduce grade inflation by fiat. Instead, she hopes professors will scrutinize their own grading habits.
As for Mansfield, he plans to continue his two-grade experiment this semester, and is newly confident after learning that the students' favorability rating for the class rose a bit over last year.
Indeed, the undergraduates in Gov1061 generally approved of the two marks, though some felt he was arbitrarily deflating instead of arbitrarily inflating. (His nickname isn't ''Harvey C-minus'' for nothing.)
''The double grading experiment is a brilliant exercise in irony as a form of morality,'' one student wrote.
A senior added: ''Nothing like a good shot to our self-esteem before getting out of this lunatic bin.''
This story ran on page A20 of the Boston Globe on 10/7/2001.
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