In undergraduate courses, A’s made up 39.7 percent of all grades given in 2008–09, the lowest percentage in the five years since Princeton’s faculty adopted a policy aimed at curbing grade inflation.
Engineering and the humanities each had two-point decreases in the percentage of A’s awarded, dropping to 40.6 percent and 42.5 percent, respectively. Departments in the natural sciences and social sciences remained the toughest graders.
The Faculty Committee on Grading said that faculty “reached a major milestone” by lowering A grades below the 40-percent mark. But the Undergraduate Student Government questioned the way that some professors have interpreted Princeton’s grading guidelines.
In a letter to faculty, USG officers noted that while the policy sets a goal of having A’s make up 35 percent of the grades in each department over time, some professors announced a 35-percent limit on A’s on the first day of class.
“No good can come of making grading a zero-sum game in which students hesitate to clarify a concept for a fellow student because it might cost them a good grade,” the USG letter said.
At a Sept. 21 faculty meeting, Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel confirmed that the policy does not impose quotas or limits for grades in individual courses. The “operating assumption,” she said, is that rigorous judgments by individual professors will lead departments toward the 35-percent goal, which would bring today’s grades roughly in line with the ones that Princeton students received in the early 1990s.
Malkiel’s office has updated its brochure of frequently asked questions about the grading policy and planned to send it to all faculty, undergraduates, and undergraduate parents in late September.
Benjamin Lund ’10, the USG academics chairman, said that among students, concern about the grading policy intensified when the economy soured and job opportunities became more scarce. Lund added that administrators and faculty have thanked the USG for its efforts to clear up misconceptions about the grading policy.
The grading policy, adopted in April 2004, led to a significant drop in A grades during its first year, 2004–05, when A’s accounted for 40.9 percent of undergraduate course grades, down from 46.0 percent in 2003–04. Since then, changes have moved more slowly, with some departments “backsliding” by awarding more A’s, according to the 2007–08 grading report.