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Nov. 13, 2013

Vol. 114, No. 4

On the Campus

Fresh Look at Grading

Eisgruber raises grade-deflation questions, asks faculty members to review policy

By Jennifer Altmann
Published in the November 13, 2013, issue

Paul Zwolak

Just four months into his presidency, President Eisgruber ’83 has launched a re-examination of one of his predecessor’s most controversial policies: curbing grade inflation. 

A new faculty committee will review the University’s grading policies and examine several factors, including whether they have affected students’ employment prospects and graduate-school admission, Eisgruber announced Oct. 7. The move comes almost 10 years after the faculty adopted a goal of having A’s make up 35 percent of the grades in each department. A recent progress report found that goal hasn’t quite been achieved: In 2010–13, 41.8 percent of grades in undergraduate courses were A’s. That’s down from 47 percent in 2001–04 but higher than last year’s report, which showed that in 2009–12, A’s made up 40.9 percent of all grades.

The grading policy is an issue that Princetonians frequently raise when they interact with him, Eisgruber told PAW. “One of the things that worries me about it is that there is so much talk about the policy that it seems at times to be a kind of defining characteristic for the institution.” He added, “I say that as somebody who sympathizes with the objectives of the grading policy and voted for it and has long defended it.”

But it’s important, after 10 years, to re-examine whether the objectives set out by the original policy — providing fairness across departments and meaningful feedback to students — still are appropriate, and whether the policy is the best way of achieving them, he said.

At a recent forum with alumni in New York City, Eisgruber said that Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye had told him she was concerned that the policy may be discouraging students from coming to Princeton. “If we are inadvertently producing a kind of a side effect that can be avoided, that’s something to worry about, but I don’t think that’s the ground on which the committee should make its decision,” he told PAW.

Current students have expressed fear about losing out on jobs and internships because of the lower grades resulting from the policy, said Shawon Jackson ’15, president of the Undergraduate Student Government. Another gripe is that what constitutes an A “is contingent upon how other students do in the class by the end of the course,” so expectations of what level of work will earn an A are not clear from the beginning, he said. 

Dean of the College Valerie Smith said the policy may limit employment prospects for some students in management consulting and finance. “I have certainly heard anecdotally that where our students may be disadvantaged is in certain sectors” where some firms have a GPA cutoff, she said. 

No peer institutions have followed Princeton’s lead on grade deflation, though a Yale faculty committee in the spring recommended switching from letter grades to a 100-point scale and establishing non-mandatory grade-distribution guidelines. 

A recent study found that students with higher GPAs were more likely to be admitted to business schools, even when those higher grades were attributable to more lenient grading. Don Moore, a co-author of the study who teaches at the University of California-Berkeley, said one part of the study used fictional transcripts submitted to 23 professional admission officers (another part of the research incorporated real admission data from four MBA programs). The transcripts from schools with tougher grading came with information about the school’s rigorous grading policy, a practice that Princeton also employs. “People have a hard time correcting the impression grades make,” Moore said. 

Some faculty members “feel that the policy constrains them to grade in ways other than they would prefer to grade, and [there are] other faculty who I think fully support the policy,” Eisgruber said.

There are no students on the review committee — it is made up of nine faculty members — but their input will be sought. “I think it’s very important that the committee listen to students,” Eisgruber said.

English professor Jeff Nunokawa, for one, supports the re-examination of the policy. “The health of any institution depends on rigorous and periodic review of what it does,” he said. The review demonstrates, he added, that “very little around here is sacrosanct.”

Post Comments
5 Responses to Fresh Look at Grading

W. Michael Johnson '81 Says:

2013-11-11 13:46:09

The review is proper, but input should not be restricted to within the University. The central question is if those hiring and judging applications and appointments value the higher level of academic judgement. In terms of graduate placement and academic placement (including business among all fields), I believe the spectrum of admissions and hiring data would speak for itself. If a peer institution has a higher placement rate over time and across discipline, and does not limit grade inflation, then arguably the present policy could hurt the future applicant pool. The University does not exist in a vacuum, but neither should it assume the majority position of peer universities that grade inflation is not a problem.

Charles N. Watson Jr. '61 Says:

2013-11-11 14:13:52

As a longtime professor of English at Syracuse (I retired in 2007), I would have considered it an infringement on my academic freedom if my administration had required that I impose a grade distribution either higher or lower than the one I considered justified by the work the students performed. If all the students in a given course did work that I considered of A or B quality, all of them would have received A's and B's; and, correspondingly, if none of them did A work, no A's would have been given. Although I don't recall that these extreme cases ever actually obtained, they certainly could have, and I would argue that I was the only one able to judge what grade an individual merited or how many should fall into each grade category. At a highly selective institution such as Princeton, in which every student is presumably capable of a high level of academic performance, it makes no sense to pressure the faculty to engage in artificial grade deflation. Different professors inevitably have different standards of evaluation, and the intellectual cultures of the various academic disciplines can never be uniform (consider, for instance, the difference between grading an objectively precise exam in the sciences and grading an interpretive essay in the humanities). So count me a dissenter on Princeton's effort at grade deflation. Such decisions should be left to the faculty; business schools can find some other grounds for worrying about their admissions criteria.

Larry Dickson *71 Says:

2013-11-11 17:06:56

It was not mentioned whether the fictional transcripts in the study were identified as coming from real universities. I find it hard to believe that a graduate of Princeton - a university whose high standards are well known - would be automatically tossed in the way described. Professor Watson makes a valid point, but it could be addressed by averaging over time. To succumb completely to grade inflation would be demoralizing to students who believe that one attends college to really learn something, rather than merely to gain advantage in a numbers game.

Harold McDuffie *42 Says:

2013-11-11 17:24:30

I think that any forced distribution is unfair to the student. It is appropriate for the dean of the faculty to review the grades that a particular faculty member is giving to ensure fairness.

Richard L. Chase *63 Says:

2013-11-12 14:22:08

When a university such as Princeton accepts only one in 18 applicants, it is questionable to insist that only 35% of the students in any class receive an A.
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