How to solve the grade-inflation dilemma? Look to England, writer argues

Three-grade system might be the "Goldilocks" approach American colleges have been looking for

As many of America's colleges grapple with the issue of grade inflation, one writer suggests a simple solution: Reduce the number of available grades to three, in a "Goldilocks" approach that avoids being too harsh or too lenient.

Writing in The Atlantic, Heidi Tworek—a lecturer at Harvard University—suggests that colleges' experiments to curb grade inflation have been either too harsh or too lenient. For example, Wellesley College uses a quota-based system, mandating that certain classes maintain an average grade of B+ or lower. From 2004 until this year, Princeton University limited the number of students who could receive an A grade.

However, Tworek argues, these measures seem overly harsh—and have ultimately had a negative impact on the schools. Princeton recently suspended its system over concerns that lower grades dissuaded top prospective students and were hurting graduates applying for jobs and graduate schools. At Wellesley, the policy has curbed the popularity of certain majors and reduced enrollment by as much as 19% in some courses.

Grade appeal policies

Other schools have gone to the opposite extreme. Bennington College and Reed College, along with eight others, have abolished grades altogether.

Tworek argues that the best solution is somewhere between the existing models—a "Goldilocks" solution that bridges the extremes. And she thinks it might be found already at universities in England.

In the United Kingdom, students receive one of only three marks: first, second, or third. Second is by far the most common grade; 76% of students graduate with a second-designated degree. Only the truly exceptional students—about 19%—receive a first-class degree. 

The system carries several benefits, argues Tworek. Employers do not look down on second-marked degrees, generally accepting it as a mark of quality. Furthermore, the simpler system "removes the narcissism inherent in minor differences," she writes. Finally, the system still distinguishes degrees just enough to give students, teachers, and employers a sense of the student's performance (Tworek, The Atlantic, 10/20).


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