When I came across the story in the Nov. 13 issue of PAW on the return to the question of grade inflation (and its deterrence), I was reminded of a letter that I wrote and that The Daily Princetonian published in 2003, the year in which I retired. Rereading it, I found it interesting and informative about how the norms of grading have changed over the years. It does not seem to me to be out of date.
There has been a lot of discussion at Princeton this spring about so-called “grade inflation.” I thought it might interest students to have some concrete sense of what grading was like in an earlier time — at least in my area of the University, namely the humanities. For reasons that will be immediately clear, I pick a single instance, European Literature 142, “Shorter Forms of Fiction,” in which I offered two “discussion groups” for a total of 31 freshmen in 1965. This particular course was brought back to mind by a meeting, occurring by chance in P.J.’s Pancake House one recent Wednesday, with a man (Class of ’68) who had been in one of those discussion groups and who said he remembered the course with fondness. Out of curiosity I opened my grade book (now down to its last empty page) and there he was. What grade did he receive in that course he so enjoyed? C+, or its slightly higher equivalent, a 3+. (In those days we had five passing grades instead of the current four, ranging from 1-5 rather than from A-D.) In an era in which C+ hardly exists as a grade (in one of my departments a few years ago a senior professor instructed a new junior colleague that at Princeton there were essentially three grades, A, A-, and B+), I think it unlikely that anyone receiving such a grade would remember that course with pleasure. To give a clearer sense of what grades at Princeton were like in those days, here are the numbers for those two sections in 1965 (one must adjust these slightly upwards to make them equivalent to our grades today; e.g., a 3+ is higher than C+ but lower than B-):
My point here is not to suggest that we should return to a more rigorous grading system (if I do believe that is a good idea), but to observe that, in our current system, A has become a normative grade, and thus no longer a genuine marker of excellence. If we cannot reform, I think we should acknowledge our unwillingness or inability to do so and shift to a system involving perhaps three “grades:” “high pass,” “pass,” “fail.” In another of my departments, two years ago, every grade for independent work was one form of A or another, with the exception of a single B+. Some 10 years ago, a student who had gotten the sole straight A in an upperclass course of mine (the other 18 grades were 3 A-, 5 B+, 2 B, 2 B-, 2 C+, 1 C, 2 C-, 1 D) came to see me a year and more later. Would I, she asked, read her senior thesis for her? Since I was interested in her subject, I was happy to oblige. The reason for her request, however, surprised me. Her department (one of the largest in the humanities) had given so many students “A” on their senior thesis that, as she said, she had no idea what her grade was actually worth. And that should be worrisome to our students. (By the way, I would have given that thesis an A.) Were they to find out that many of their peers had received the same “A” of which they are understandably proud, their grade would recede in value, and not only in their own eyes, but, as they would realize, in the eyes of admissions officers, “headhunters,” etc. If everyone is excellent, no one is.
Should Princeton fail to correct the practice it currently allows, I think the only way to make grades at least somewhat more honest is to have available for everyone, students themselves and those who read their transcripts, a profile of a particular grader’s grading over the years that he or she has been teaching at Princeton. I do not think many of our students even begin to appreciate how inflated the currency of their grades has become. When, as part of my administrative duties, I did a survey of the grading practices of the professors in one of my departments six years ago, the results were hardly believable. In a total of some 1,300 grades given by 10 of the 13 members of that department over a five-year period (1992-97), the grade of A was awarded to a maximum of 85 percent and a minimum (ah, the rigor of it!) of 65 percent of their students. If the “toughest” grader in that group awarded the grade of A to two-thirds of his or her students, I think there is obvious ground for concern. Let’s face it, professors like to be liked, like to have positive evaluations from their students; students like to receive high grades. In such unacknowledged collaboration, one becomes aware of a sort of collusion. Is it impossible to agree that such behavior should be abandoned?
Robert Hollander ’55 is a professor of European literature and French and Italian, emeritus.