Last night the faculty of Yale University decided to postpone voting on a controversial modification to the school's grading system — essentially, instituting a grading curve — thus averting a major outcry from Yale's undergraduate body, as evidenced by string of negative articles in the school's newspaper and a lengthy report from its student government. Yale's faculty isn't abandoning their cause, though: they've simply delayed their decision until November, when the debate over grading is sure to arise again. But what is that debate, exactly?
Yale's current system is a bit complicated — you can decide to take certain classes under a separate "Credit/D/Fail" option — but otherwise recognizable, with A, A-, B+, and so forth, each of which corresponding to a certain number on a 4.0 grading scale. The new system, advocated by certain members of Yale's faculty and staff, however, uses a 100-point grading system that, in theory, better captures the merit a certain grade expresses. (Using 100 points, professors distribute grades according to a pre-determined rubric — a.k.a. a curve.) The problem this fixes, as many Yale professors and students diagnose it, is pretty simple: a full 62 percent — nearly two-thirds — of grades awarded in Yale College, the university's undergraduate school, are A or A-. (That wasn't case four decades ago, when just 1 out of 10 grades awarded fell in the A range.)
So on one hand, you have pretty decent evidence for grade inflation, perhaps driven by the increasingly competitive nature of higher education, especially at single-digit-acceptance-rate schools like Yale, where students are more likely to challenge, and convince a professor to alter, an insufficiently high grade. On the other hand, the new system changes the way the merits of student work is judged. Papers (and tests) are no longer judged on their own, but in the context of (and against) the work other students.
Understandably, this has Yale students concerned. "This would make Yale a stressful, cutthroat, competitive, grade-grubbing, number-driven environment," one student told The Yale Daily News. Less anecdotally, 79 percent of Yalies told Yale College Council (the undergraduate student government), that the proposed grading curve would have "negative" effects. From the YCC's report, which was issued late last week:
Here's a weird twist, though: According to the same survey, Yalies definitely seem to recognize that their college assigns inflated grades....
But they don't want anything to be done about it, either:
In the end, the Yale College Council recommended that the faculty "reject the proposal or postpone their vote until [they consider] student opinion" on it. They added, "The cultural changes that will come as a result of changing the grading system are vast, taking away from Yale’s collaborative and explorative academic culture, and must receive more consideration before any final decisions are made."
Now, we're all in favor of student input, but there is some cognitive dissonance going on here. First of all, Yale is already very, very, very competitive. And not just to get into, but to participate in extra-curriculars during the school year. The Yale Daily News has published feature-length articles on the intense competition associated with an annual camping program. Meanwhile, the ever-decreasing acceptance rate is celebrated year after year after year as evidence of the student body's quality. Suggesting that a more rigorous grading process would make Yale "stressful" and "competitive" pretty much ignores that Yale is both of those things already.
None of this controversy is really new, it should be noted. According to a 1967 article in The Harvard Crimson, professors at Ivy League schools have been trying (and often failing) to hone their grading system since, well, grades were invented in the first place.