Campus & Community

Faculty agrees to switch to 4-pt. scale

3 min read

Honors degrees will be limited

At the May 21 Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) Faculty Meeting, the Faculty unanimously approved two changes in Harvard College policies concerning grading and honors.

After a year of discussion within FAS departments as well as the Educational Policy Committee, the Committee on Undergraduate Education, and the Faculty Council, the Faculty voted to change its current 15-point grading scale to the more commonly used 4-point grading scale, and to award honors degrees to a limited percentage of each graduating class. The conversion to a 4.0 scale will go into effect starting with academic year 2003-04, and the honors policy is effective starting with current freshmen (Class of 2005).

The change to a 4-point scale effectively removes any pressure on grades exerted by the “double-jump” (the two-point difference) between letter grades (e.g., A- and B+) in Harvard’s 15-point system. It also makes Harvard grades more transparent inside and outside the academy, where the 4.0 system is more widely recognized in assessments of student performance.

Honors degrees, starting with the Class of 2005, will be awarded according to fixed percentage caps. This measure is designed to help maintain the meaning of each honors category (cum laude in field, magna cum laude in field, summa cum laude in field, and cum laude based on overall grade point average). Percentage caps will also protect the distribution of honors degrees from any trends toward grade deflation or inflation arising from any changes in the distribution of grades awarded.

Summa cum laude degrees have been capped at 5 percent of the graduating class since 1997. Under the new policy, summa and magna cum laude degrees “in field” will together comprise up to 20 percent of the graduating class. Summa, magna, and cum laude degrees in field will together comprise up to 50 percent of the graduating class. Honors in field are awarded on the basis of an honors recommendation in a student’s field or concentration, as well as on overall grade average. The separate cum laude degree awarded on the basis of overall grade-point average alone will be awarded to those students who have not pursued departmental honors, but whose overall GPA falls above the magna level. It is expected that no more than 3 percent of the class will meet these particular qualifications, and a limit of 10 percent of the class will be imposed on this category of honors. The effect of these changes will be to raise significantly the minimum grade-point average required for the cum laude, cum laude in field, and magna cum laude degrees.

These changes, which will be supported by administrative efforts to increase faculty awareness of shared grading standards, are viewed as constructive measures in the College’s continual effort to make undergraduate education challenging, inspiring, and meaningful for the students.

Susan Pedersen, dean of undergraduate education, says, “We are fortunate that the efforts and excellence of our students make the continual evaluation of our grading and honors systems necessary. The faculty have engaged in a thorough examination of grading and honors this year. I am confident that these policy changes will help us maintain our commitment to the highest educational standards.”

Lawrence H. Summers, president of Harvard University, says, “I welcome the Faculty’s adoption of higher standards for honors, more transparent grading and sounder grading practices in the future.”