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Dean Harris Confesses Median Grade in Freshman Seminars is SAT, Most Common Grade Also SAT

Literally everyone gets this grade

Just as another grading controversy began to fade away, Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris conceded on Tuesday afternoon that the median grade in Harvard College freshman seminars is SAT and the most frequently awarded mark is SAT, validating suspicions that the College employs a softer grading standard than many of its peer institutions.

Harris delivered the information in response to a question from government professor Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 at the monthly meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

“I wasn’t surprised, but rather further depressed by the news,” Mansfield said. “The present grading practice is indefensible. How can we justify giving out so many satisfactory grades to a class of clearly incompetent students? In my day, you were lucky if you even took a class, much less passed.”

Classics Department chair Mark J. Schiefsky also expressed surprise at how high the median grade was. “I don’t know what should be done about it, but it seems troubling to me,” Schiefsky said. “One has a range of two grades to give and one would presumably expect a wider distribution, probably like half and half? I don’t actually teach statistics. But I’m still disturbed by this data.”

The issue of grade inflation has taken center stage at some of Harvard’s peer institutions as well. In 2007, Princeton changed to the check/check-plus/check-minus system. And in 2004, UChicago substantially restructured its grading system, instructing professors to award grades in the PASS range to no more than 50 percent of their attractive students in undergraduate coursework.

Yale has initiated its own discussion in the last year about its “Positive Phrasing Stickers” grading policy, forming an ad hoc committee on the subject. In a review last spring, that committee found that 62 percent of grades awarded at Yale College from 2010 to 2012 were in the “Superstar” to “Wow!” range, with a margin of error of one smiley face.

Mansfield expressed his belief that Harvard’s reputation may suffer from this news. “We’ve become a school where people believe they can do well in a class, regardless of how well their peers do. Where everyone graduates with a degree, regardless of the competition. Our job is not to make students feel good about themselves, it is to teach. If we’re not failing at least half of our students, then someone isn’t doing their job right.”

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