Faculty to consider ending targets for A’s, relying instead on departmental standards

Princeton soon may abandon its controversial policy aimed at curbing grade inflation, following recommendations by an ad hoc faculty committee that the University drop its numerical grading targets and focus instead on providing better feedback for students’ work and establishing clearer grading standards at the departmental level.

The current guidelines, adopted in 2004, seek to limit A grades to 35 percent of undergraduate coursework. Though they are recommendations only, the targets are “too often misinterpreted as quotas” and contribute to student anxiety and a culture of competition on campus, the committee concluded in a report released in early August. The group was appointed by President Eisgruber ’83 to review the policy.

Eisgruber has endorsed the committee’s proposals, which likely will come before a faculty vote in October. “It’s my strong feeling that we should be known for the quality of our teaching and the distinctiveness of our commitment to undergraduate education, not for the severity of our curve,” he said. “The committee wisely said: If it’s feedback that we care about, and differentiating between good and better and worse work, that’s what we should focus on, not on numbers.”

Since the policy was adopted, the percentage of A’s awarded has dropped from 47 percent in 2001–04 to 41.8 percent in 2010–13. As a result, a larger share of grades shifted into the B-range, while the fraction of grades C and below held steady.

Despite student complaints that the “grade-deflation” policy puts them at a disadvantage, the committee found no evidence that it had harmed most graduates’ job prospects or success in gaining admission to graduate or professional schools or winning competitive fellowships. (The exception, the committee found, was ROTC students, whose first assignments are awarded based on GPA rankings.)

Nevertheless, the perception that A’s were in short supply has turned classrooms into pressure cookers, the committee concluded.

Shawon Jackson ’15, president of the Undergraduate Student Government, welcomed the proposals. “I think the shift away from quotas will have a huge impact on the student body,” he said. “It will show that you don’t have to fight with your peers to get an A or A-minus in a course. If you meet the standards that are established from the beginning, you’ll get the grade you deserve.”

Fear of low GPAs may deter prospective students from attending Princeton, the report suggested. Coaches reported that perceptions of the grading policy handicapped them in recruiting student-athletes, the report said. Janet Rapelye, dean of admission, told the group that applicants and their parents fixate on the grading targets and that the grading policy was the “most-discussed topic” among prospective students at the Princeton Preview days. “The committee was surprised to learn that students at other schools (e.g. Harvard, Stanford, and Yale) use our grading policy to recruit against us,” said the report.

What’s more, the committee concluded, the numerical targets may have been only partially responsible for reversing a pattern of higher grading. After a period of “substantial grade inflation” from 1974 through 2003, the report noted, grades fell sharply in advance of the current policy’s implementation in 2005. The fraction of A grades continued to decline a bit for a few years, then increased between 2009 and 2013 as monitoring of the policy grew more lax.

The fact that the steepest drop in grades occurred in the two years before the policy took effect suggests that sustained conversation about grading may be as effective as numerical targets in keeping rising grades in check, the report concluded. It recommended that departments develop grading rubrics — similar to those created for assessing senior theses — to give students a clearer sense of what distinguishes A-level work.

Source: Report from the Ad Hoc Committee to Review Policies Regarding Assessment and Grading
Source: Report from the Ad Hoc Committee to Review Policies Regarding Assessment and Grading
Steve Wolock/River Graphics
Source: Report from the Ad Hoc Committee to Review Policies Regarding Assessment and Grading
Source: Report from the Ad Hoc Committee to Review Policies Regarding Assessment and Grading
Steve Wolock/River Graphics

Rolling back the grading policy would end an experiment that has been hailed in academe as both successful and courageous. When the policy was adopted, Princeton had hoped that other elite schools would follow suit. None of the Ivies did, though Wellesley College in 2004 instituted guidelines that the mean grade for 100- and 200-level classes should not exceed a B+.

An analysis of Wellesley’s guidelines published in The Journal of Economic Perspectives found that, although the policy brought down grades, it also widened racial gaps in grading trends and reduced enrollments in departments most affected by the changes. “Any institution that attempts to deal with grade inflation on its own must consider the possibility of adverse consequences of this unilateral disarmament,” the Wellesley researchers warned.

Princeton’s willingness to take bold actions ahead of its peers paid off in the case of its “no loan” financial-aid policy, Eisgruber said. But in terms of grading, he said, “being out there alone increased the stress around our policy.”

If the faculty committee had found that “there are huge pedagogical benefits to numerical targets, we would have stuck with numerical targets,” he said. “But what they’ve said is that this may be unusual, but it’s not bold in the sense of improving our education in any way.”

“We continue to be bold in doing things that innovate on our campus,” he said, citing the bridge-year program and the University’s commitment to keep tenured faculty in the classroom.

A survey for the committee showed faculty members split on their view of the grading policy (47 percent in favor, 37 percent opposed, 16 percent neutral), with natural sciences expressing the strongest support and the humanities the widest opposition. But the survey found only minor shifts of opinion in the past decade; when asked about their position at the time it was adopted, 50 percent of faculty who were on campus in 2004 reported they had been in favor of the policy, compared with 35 percent opposed and 15 percent neutral.

; Source: Report from the Ad Hoc Committee to Review Policies Regarding Assessment and Grading
; Source: Report from the Ad Hoc Committee to Review Policies Regarding Assessment and Grading
Steve Wolock/River Graphics

The committee’s recommendations are “muddled thinking,” said physics professor Daniel Marlow, who said that the targets successfully have steered Princeton away from the inflated grades seen at other universities. “Absent a numerical target, it will be hard to avoid an upward drift,” he said. “I don’t think we can give students high grades just to lower their stress level.”

English professor Esther Schor has long opposed the policy’s “one-target-fits-all” model. “Although these targets were not quotas per se, the dean’s office clearly intended that department chairs implement them, not simply recommend them,” she said in an email. “I feared in particular for junior faculty and graduate instructors, who were most likely to feel pressure (and be pressured) to grade according to targets rather than according to their own best judgment.”

“I’ll be happy to wave it goodbye,” art and archaeology professor Jerome Silbergeld said of the policy. “If all my students deserve good grades, I should be the first one to know that, not somebody else establishing policy from beyond.”

Professor Stanley Katz of the Woodrow Wilson School expressed mixed feelings about the committee’s proposals. While he agreed that the 35 percent cap on A’s was too rigid, he said that grade inflation is “educationally a bad thing” and that if the policy “is to be left to departments, I would describe that as an act of despair — in other words, I think it’s giving up.”

Many expect that grades will creep upward if the faculty votes to abandon the grading targets, although not everyone believes that’s a problem. “I think in the current climate, where our peer institutions have grades that are so far above ours, it’s fine if our grades rise a little bit,” said Clarence Rowley ’95, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and chair of the ad hoc committee.

If grade inflation were to become a problem, Rowley said, it might be corrected by discussions between the dean of the college and department heads. “If it does start to get out of control,” he said, “I think those conversations are a better way to rein things in than the numerical targets.”