The Chronicle of Higher Education , April 6, 2001

Grade Inflation: It's Time to Face the Facts


This term I decided to experiment with the grading of my political-philosophy course at Harvard. I am giving each student two grades: one for the registrar and the public record, and the other in private. The official grades will conform with Harvard'sinflated distribution, in which one-fourth of all grades given to undergraduates are now A's, and another fourth are A-'s. The private grades, from the course assistants and me, will be less flattering. Those grades will give students a realistic, useful assessment of how well they did and where they stand in relation to others.

A longtime critic of grade inflation, I have seen my grades dragged gradually higher over the years, while still trailing the rising average. I could not ignore the pressure to meet student expectations that other faculty members have created and maintained, but I did not want just to go along silently. The two-grade device is a way to show my contempt for the present system, yet not punish students who take my course. My intent was to get attention and to provoke some new thinking.

I certainly got attention. I was pleased at the degree of interest from around the country, both in the news media and from the general public. The grades that faculty members now give -- not only at Harvard but at many other elite universities -- deserve to be a scandal.

People often criticize elementary and secondary schools for demanding too little of students. In the past presidential race, both candidates spoke frequently of the need to raise standards. But at Harvard, the supposed pinnacle of American education, professors are quite satisfied to bestow outlandishly high grades upon students. We even think those grades reflect well on us; they show how popular we are with bright students. And so we are quite satisfied with ourselves, too.

There is something inappropriate -- almost sick -- in the spectacle of mature adults showering young people with unbelievable praise. We are flattering our students in our eagerness to get their good opinion. That our students are promising makes it worse, for promise made complacent is easily spoilt. What's more, professors who give easy grades gain just a fleeting popularity, salted with disdain. In later life, students will forget those professors; they will remember the ones who posed a challenge.

In a healthy university, it would not be necessary to say what is wrong with grade inflation. But once the evil becomes routine, people can no longer see it for what it is. Even though educators should instinctively understand why grade inflation is a problem, one has to be explicit about it.

Grade inflation compresses all grades at the top, making it difficult to discriminate the best from the very good, the very good from the good, the good from the mediocre. Surely a teacher wants to mark the few best students with a grade that distinguishes them from all the rest in the top quarter, but at Harvard that's not possible. Some of my colleagues say that all you have to do to interpret inflated grades is to recalibrate them in your mind so that a B+ equals a C, and so forth. But the compression at the top of the scale does not permit the gradation that you need to rate students accurately.

Moreover, everyone knows that C is an average grade, whereas a B+ is next to the top. Mere recalibration does not address the real problem: the raising of grades way beyond what students deserve.

At Harvard, we have lost the notion of an average student. By that I mean a Harvard average, not a comparison with the high-school average that enabled our students to be admitted here. When bright students take a step up and find themselves with other bright students, they should face a new, higher standard of excellence.

The loss of the notion of average shows that professors today do not begin with their own criteria for the performance of students in their courses. Professors do not say to themselves, "This is what I can require; anything above that enters into excellence." No. With an eye to student course evaluations and confounded by the realization that they have somehow lost authority, professors begin from what they think students expect. American colleges used to set their own expectations. Now, increasingly, they react to student expectations -- even though, by contrast to stormy times in the past, students are very respectful.

Thus another evil of grade inflation is the loss of faculty morale that it reveals. It signifies that professors care less about their teaching. Anyone who cares a lot about something -- for example, a baseball fan -- is very critical in making judgments about it. Far from the opposite of caring, being critical is the very consequence of caring. It is difficult for students to work hard, or for the professor to get them to work hard, when they know that their chances of getting an A or A- are 50-50. Students today are still motivated to get good grades, but if they do not wish to work hard toward that end, they can always maneuver and bargain.

Some say Harvard students are better these days and deserve higher grades. But if they are in some measures better, the proper response is to raise our standards and demand more of our students. Cars are better-made now than they used to be. So when buying a car, would you be satisfied with one that was as good as they used to be?

Besides, the evidence clearly undermines that argument. The Harvard University Extension School, taught mostly by Harvard faculty members, has about the same grading distribution as Harvard College, although exact figures on grades are difficult to come by. The school holds evening classes open to the public -- a mix of Ph.D.'s, college dropouts, and high-school students -- and is not reserved for the super-smart of America's youth. Yet the Harvard professors who teach those admirable, self-improving souls cannot restrain their own -- well, it's not generosity, because high grades cost professors nothing.

Another point calls into question the claim that students are smarter now: Grades in humanities courses are notably higher than those in the social sciences, and both are higher than grades in the natural sciences. Yet would anyone say that Harvard's best students are in the humanities and its worst in the natural sciences? In fact, science students regularly do better in nonscience courses than nonscience students do in science courses.

How did we get into this mess? Perhaps I should be asking how we should get out of it. But to answer that question, one needs to appreciate the strength of feeling behind grade inflation.

Grade inflation has resulted from the emphasis in American education on the notion of self-esteem. According to that therapeutic notion, the purpose of education is to make students feel capable and empowered. So to grade them, or to grade them strictly, is cruel and dehumanizing. Grading creates stress. It encourages competition rather than harmony. It is judgmental.

A child-development professor recently expressed the spirit of such self-esteem with rare clarity: "As soon as you get into some of the more complicated things, kids may experience failure. They may feel like they're stupid." This spirit is as rampant in higher education as it is in elementary and secondary schools. At colleges, self-esteem often goes hand in hand with multiculturalism or sensitivity to people of diverse races and ethnicities -- meaning that professors must avoid offending the identities (still another name for self-esteem) of victimized groups.

I know what that means. It means that despite all the talk about free speech at Harvard, you had better watch what you say. And how you grade.

When I was interviewed by The Boston Globe about my two-grade policy, one cause of grade inflation that I cited provoked a fiercely defensive reaction from the administrators at Harvard. I said that when grade inflation got started, in the late 60's and early 70's, white professors, imbibing the spirit of affirmative action, stopped giving low or average grades to black students and, to justify or conceal it, stopped giving those grades to white students as well. Of course, I also mentioned faculty sympathy with student protesters against the Vietnam War, but it was my talking about white professors that proved quite intolerable to the Harvard administration.

A dean called my remark "groundless and false," "irresponsible," and "divisive." He accused me of having no evidence, though providing none himself. Then President Neil L. Rudenstine weighed in, responding to a demand from the Black Students Association that my statement be censured. Rudenstine, while defending free debate, stated ex cathedra that nothing he had seen, read, or heard would allow him to agree with my point. He, too, offered no evidence.

Because I have no access to the figures, I have to rely on what I saw and heard at the time. Although it is not so now, it was then utterly commonplace for white professors to overgrade black students. Any professor who did not overgrade black students either felt the impulse to do so or saw others doing it. From that, I inferred a motive for overgrading white students, too.

Of course, it is better to have facts and figures when one speaks, but I am not going to be silenced by people who have them but refuse to make them available. I've been on the Harvard faculty since 1962, and in that time I can't remember any other professor being honored with an official, factually unsupported "tain't so" like this. Somehow it didn't convince me that I was wrong.

Despite the obvious connection between self-esteem and affirmative action, some might think that I went off on a tangent from the problem of grade inflation. To me, however, my experience suggests that I got closer to the problem, not farther from it, and that I learned something about American education today. From top to bottom, we need to put our standards first.

I used to believe that that is what Harvard stands for. I still think it can recover.

Remedies for grade inflation are not beyond our ingenuity. What we need above all is to muster the determination to act. Our leaders need to lead.

Harvey C. Mansfield is a professor of government at Harvard University.

Copyright 2001