Harvard re-examines student standards as A-grades become the norm

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Are students becoming cleverer or are standards simply falling? The question has surfaced at the very pinnacle of the American educational system. Are students at Harvard quite as exceptional as their grades would suggest?

The bout of academic soul-searching at the most celebrated and prestigious university in the United States has been prompted by a report by Susan Pedersen, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Harvard, showing that 49 per cent of grades issued in the 2000-01 academic year have been in the A or A-category, more than half as many again as only 15 years earlier.

Two fundamental questions are being asked: first, why the disparity with 1986, when only 33 per cent of students received top grades – and second, perhaps even trickier and a matter of much importance for the graduate schools and multinational corporations, which are the main customers for Harvard's élite output: if A grades have become almost the norm, how do you measure relative excellence?

In the American system grades are issued at the end of every half-yearly university term, or semester, cumulatively determining students' final points scores, with which they graduate. Very approximately, A, B, and C correspond to the first, second and third-class degrees at a British university. A D-grade, while technically not a failure, is a disaster.

But at Harvard, where excellence is required merely to get in, the plethora of As has muddied the waters, making it hard to distinguish between the good, the exceptional and the truly outstanding.

Professor Harvey Mansfield, who has taught at the university for 39 years, told The New York Times yesterday: "If we're giving students the same grades they got in high school, we're saying Harvard is no better than high school," He believes that however high general standards may be, 10 per cent of the students at most should be awarded an A.

Inevitably too, race has entered the debate. Not only does Professor Mansfield contend that As are handed out so profusely out of fear of discouraging students who have previously had As all their lives; he also suggests that graders treat black students particularly kindly, to maintain Harvard's multiracial reputation.

Not so, others argue. Grades are not being inflated to avoid upsetting fragile egos. Standards indeed have improved greatly over the past 15 years, to the point where a quarter of the 2001 entrants scored a perfect 1,600 on their SAT tests, the rough American equivalent of A-levels. A lot of the increases, said Harry Lewis, Harvard's dean, "are a result of applying the same standard to better academic work".

But change is in the air. Ms Pedersen says the issue will be addressed in the spring, when "concrete action" will be taken. What is more, Larry Summers, Bill Clinton's last treasury secretary and newly appointed Harvard president, is likely to prove a stickler for excellence.

According to a Harvard spokesman, Mr Summers was "very concerned" about grade inflation and believed "very strongly" in the importance of high and rigorous standards. First, however, he must overcome the resistance of many professors. One compromise under consideration would be to give future employers or graduate schools the results of not simply a single student but also the scores recorded by all his or her classmates.