Leave profs alone

Yale is worried about grades. It’s worried that the grades it gives are too good, that it’s giving too many A’s, and that its professors are too lenient. In order to combat this tendency, some Yale administrators want to begin a comprehensive campaign of grade deflation, which would strip professors of the autonomy they deserve. I don’t like it.

Specifically, Yale is considering a revamping of its grading policies: under a proposal submitted by the Yale College Ad Hoc Committee on Grading Policy, the current system of letter grades would be replaced by a 100-point scale, which would go into effect during the 2014-15 school year.

To me, the concrete mechanics of the committee’s proposal seem innocuous. Transposing the letter grade metric onto a 100-point scale simply removes the “cliffs” between each letter grade—the drop between an A- and a B+ is softened—as Professor Ray Fair, John M. Musser Professor of Economics, the committee’s chair, has noted.

I do, however, take issue with the philosophical backbone of the proposal, which is that grading policies must change because Yale is becoming too forgiving. In essence, some Yale College administrators and faculty members are worried that the college is awarding too many A’s, and officials want to begin applying downward pressure in order to correct this perceived imbalance. To be sure, the number of students receiving A grades has risen substantially: whereas in 1963, according to the committee’s report, just 10 percent of grades issued by Yale were in the A-range, that number had climbed to 62 percent by the spring of 2012. Thus, in the eyes of some Yale administrators, a policy change must go into effect in order to correct this trend of snowballing A’s.

I disagree. In general, I think A’s should be awarded when students perform excellently; “excellent,” after all, is the word Yale uses to define A-quality work. If ten people in a 20-person English class all write A-quality essays, I think they should all be given A’s. In fact, I think if 10 people in a 10-person English class write A-quality essays, they too should all be given A’s.

Fundamentally, though, my position is that professors should be given enough independence to decide how they want to approach the issue of grading. The Committee released a suggestion for “grade guidelines” under the proposed new 100-point scale: 35 percent of grades awarded by Yale College professors would fall within the 90 to 100 range, 40 percent in the 80 to 89 range, 20 percent in the 70 to 79 range, and five percent below 69. This is bad policy. Yale should let its professors handle grades, not limit their autonomy by handing down rubrics from on high. Although the grade guidelines are indeed only guidelines and not concrete quotas, Yale should acknowledge that grading is the prerogative of its professors. Some are stricter when it comes to grading and some are more lenient, but Yale College administrators should not be governing the manner in which professors evaluate student work.

Interestingly, the committee notes that Yale’s grading policies have undergone dramatic shifts a number of different times since 1963. In 1967 grading was changed from a numeric scale to a measurement system based on Honors. Letter grades were not introduced at Yale until the fall of 1972, and it was almost a decade later that pluses and minuses were incorporated into the grading scale. Since 1981 the grading policy at Yale has remained static, so it seems indeed to be high time for a change in policy, but the idea that this shift should occur in tandem with a broad stripping of professorial independence doesn’t make sense.

I don’t think that it is in Yale’s best interest to pursue a course of grade deflation—the idea of grade deflation, by its very nature, assumes that professors aren’t competent enough to assign appropriate grades without supervision. But the real issue that Yale must confront in evaluating the committee’s proposals is whether the autonomy of its professors should be preserved. Either professors get the final word on grading—and are allowed to continue to shape the Yale College experience on an individual, nuanced basis—or Yale’s robust administration begins to push professors aside and creep into every classroom and laboratory across Yale’s campus.

For my part, I hope we keep placing our trust in our professors.