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Dean of the Faculty Pushes Back at WSJ on Grades

Prof. Kathy Oleson says Wall Street Journal columnist got wires crossed on Reed鈥檚 grading policy.

By Chris Lydgate 鈥90 | February 11, 2021

Prof. Kathy Oleson, the dean of the faculty, forcefully defended Reed’s grading policy after it came under attack in a by columnist Andy Kessler.

Kessler, who pens the Inside View column in the Journal, threw shade at Reed and other liberal arts colleges for their supposed lax approach to grading. “Many schools, like Hampshire College, Antioch University and 好色导航, don’t even bother with meaningful grades—feelings might get hurt,” he wrote. “Reed students do receive a loosey-goosey grade-point average, but ‘papers and exams are generally returned to students with lengthy comments but without grades affixed.’”

He cited Reed’s grading policy to support his contention that equity initiatives threaten to promote mediocrity, undermine the concept of merit, and generally signal the downfall of America.

Prof. Oleson pushed back hard. 

“This conjecture indicates a fundamental misunderstanding and mischaracterization of Reed’s approach to learning,” she said. 

Kessler’s first mistake lay in suggesting that Reed subscribes to the everyone-gets-a-trophy philosophy. In fact, Reed is renowned for academic rigor, exacting standards, and for defying the grade inflation that is rampant in higher education. Standards at Reed are so demanding that a perfect 4.0 GPA is almost unheard of—fewer than 10 students have achieved this in the last 25 years.

More important—and more meaningful—than grades, however, is the ongoing feedback that students receive from their professors, a practice that Prof. Oleson noted “fosters content proficiency, more creativity and intellectual curiosity, and stronger outcomes.”

Prof. Oleson also rejected the column’s central premise. “Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives actually lead to a more meritocratic society by giving more students access to top-quality education,” she said.

Prof. Oleson is a social psychologist who has devoted much of her career to finding ways to make the classroom more inclusive—and more effective. She is the author of and has authored scores of scholarly articles on topics such as , unconscious bias, uncertainty, , self-handicapping, stereotyping, and even .

Here's the full text of Prof. Oleson’s letter:

Response to WSJ “Mediocrity Is Now Mandatory”

Andy Kessler’s commentary, “” (February 2021), equates Reed’s grading philosophy, which measures academic achievement by intellectual growth, with fragility and claims that Reed’s faculty “don’t even bother with meaningful grades.” Kessler cites the grading policy at Reed as evidence that diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives threaten to dethrone merit and promote a culture of mediocrity. This conjecture indicates a fundamental misunderstanding and mischaracterization of Reed’s approach to learning. First, a conventional letter grade for each course is recorded for every student at Reed. In fact, Reed is renowned for an absence of grade inflation that reflects the rigor of our academic program and the high standards set by the faculty. This being said, it is true that letter grades are not shared with students unless requested. Instead, students receive robust ongoing feedback on their work, including lengthy comments on papers and exams. This practice fosters content proficiency, more creativity and intellectual curiosity, and stronger outcomes. Furthermore, diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives actually lead to a more meritocratic society by giving more students access to top-quality education. Demonstrating the power of our approach, Reed ranks fourth in the nation among colleges and universities in the percentage of graduates who go on to earn doctoral degrees. (Source: National Science Foundation and Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System data, based on doctoral degrees awarded 2005–2014.)

Bottom line, we know that when meeting the challenges of “real life,” the grades you received in college don't matter if you didn’t learn the material.

Kathryn C. Oleson
Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Psychology
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