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Harvard under scrutiny: are its students' grades over-generous?

'If this is true... it represents a failure on the part of this faculty and its leadership to maintain our academic standards' says college professor

Each year, Harvard has its pick of the high school crop in the United States. Thousands of straight-A students apply for a chance to study at the Ivy League school.

The lucky ones are offered a world-class education, but new data has prompted questions over whether grades are being inflated at the storied Massachusetts institution.

The university has revealed that the median score for Harvard undergraduates is an A– and the most frequently awarded grade is an A, after a college professor raised the issue of generous grading at a monthly faculty meeting earlier this week.

“A little bird has told me that the most frequently given grade at Harvard College right now is an A–,” Harvey Mansfield, himself a Harvard graduate and a professor of government, said during the gathering, according to The Harvard Crimson, the campus newspaper.

“If this is true or nearly true, it represents a failure on the part of this faculty and its leadership to maintain our academic standards.”

Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education corrected Professor Mansfield, saying that the most frequently awarded mark was, in fact, an A, turning the spotlight on the way the college grades it students.

Speaking to The Boston Globe, Professor Mansfield admitted that in recent years he had begun hand out two sets of grades to his own students, one for their transcript and another grade that more accurately reflected his assessment of their progress at the elite college.

“I didn’t want my students to be punished by being the only ones to suffer for getting an accurate grade,” he said. The job of improving official grading trends, he told the paper, had to be led by administrative officials.

The issue of generous grading has come up in the past. Two years ago, when the former US Treasury Secretary and ex-Harvard president Larry Summers was questioned about whether the university was being too soft on its undergraduates, he remarked that “90 per cent of Harvard graduates graduated with honours when I started…  The most unique honour you could graduate with was none.” Mr Summers resigned from Harvard in 2006 after apologising for comments in which he seemed to suggest that men outperformed women in certain subjects owning to biological differences.

Professor Mansfield also spoke about grade inflation back in the mid-1970s, when most Harvard undergraduates were reported to be earning cumulative course grade averages of B– or higher. “If you don’t have a less-inflated grading system, the rewards that are given out will go on the basis of some kind of favouritism, and I think that is clearly wrong,” he told The Crimson in May 1975. “Also, if you give someone too high a grade and he is in the habit of getting too-high grades, it’s a kind of flattery and it leads to a kind of corruption in the student.”

Over at Yale, a committee is looking at policies to combat an upward creep in grades at the college, according to the Yale Daily News. At Princeton, which adopted a policy to limit the number of A grades, academics are again reviewing the way it marks.