This article is a paean to the paradise lost of grading, that is, the old Princeton numerical seven-group grading system that was instituted in an abbreviated fashion in 1885 and that subsequently fell into oblivion after its abolition in 1969 in favor of standard letter grades of A+ to F. In 2004, to redress the ever-increasing grade inflation dating from the time of the switch, Princeton revised its grading policy to recommend that each department or program award no more than 35 percent of A-range grades for course work and no more than 55 percent of A-range grades for junior and senior independent work.
In one of his first acts in office, President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 established a new faculty committee to review Princeton’s nearly 10-year experience with this revised undergraduate-grading policy. It now behooves the Princeton University community to consider the wisdom of an older method that had a different type of built-in brake against grade inflation while also inspiring students to better academic performance.
I focus here primarily on the higher end of the scale of the old grading system, with its seven groupings. The first group consisted of three grades, which each had a letter equivalent explained in a note that accompanied all transcripts to graduate schools: 1+ (A+), 1 (A), 1- (A). The second group consisted of 2+ (A-), 2 (B+), 2- (B). Herein resided the genius of the system: the ability to distinguish between four levels of A grades, as well as the creation of a super category of A grades while assigning the A- to a lower grouping. As freshmen, when we earned a 2+ (A-), we felt comfortable with that grade, because in high school or prep school we had been accustomed to A and A- grades. But we looked longingly toward a grade in the first grouping, which served as a spur for greater achievement.
Standard grading, with the A+ to F range, is merely utilitarian. Princeton’s seven-grouping system, on the other hand, prompted feelings of awe, reminiscent of the inspirational effects of the French grading system. The French, with their characteristic Cartesian aplomb, have organized the task of grading into a social science. Whereas most American academics probably are not familiar with the literature – let alone the name – of la docimologie, most have heard about the 20-point grading system whereby the highest grade of 20 – according to legend – is never bestowed. While the French system made the 20 into a kind of secular Holy Grail, the Princeton system – with typical American pragmatism – prompted similar feelings of emulatory striving by making the first grouping resemble the enchanted castle of the medieval or Renaissance chivalric romance: Located on an island that separated it from the pedestrian world, it was difficult of access but nonetheless attainable by the worthy few.
Especially at a university such as Princeton, where there are so many high achievers, teachers need to have a more expanded range of grading that provides an A+ and two levels of A within the highest grouping, along with the segregation of A- into the second grouping. This arrangement not only permits subtle distinctions in rankings; it also serves as a natural brake against grade inflation. In effect, the old seven-grouping grading system was the pedagogical equivalent to the brilliant military strategy employed at Thermopylae by the Greeks in their war against the Persians when a small group of Greek soldiers temporarily held off the onslaught of the massive Persian army by creating a bottleneck in the mountain pass, thereby forcing the enemy to confront them with comparable numbers and thus holding back the great bulk of the Persian forces.
By analogy, it is difficult for a student to complain about having received only a 2+. After all, it is an A-. With the two different groupings for A grades, the higher one located on the Mount Olympus of achievement, a professor easily can hold back the onslaught of pressure from students and parents who push for higher grades. In effect, toward the last five years of the old seven-grouping grading system, only 5 percent of grades for the entire student body had achieved first-group status, with the most recent graduating classes reaching 10 percent. In contrast, under the new letter system, by 2004 the percentage of A’s had reached about 47-48 percent. The Nov. 13, 2013, issue of PAW reported that the percentage has hovered at 41-42 percent in the 2010-13 period.
When I was an undergraduate, people voiced concern that Princeton’s unaccustomed grading system might work to our disadvantage when applying to graduate programs. We were assured that the equivalency chart accompanying all Princeton transcripts would obviate any problems. Years later, after having served on graduate admission committees, I realized that admission officers at schools such as Harvard Law or Cal Tech really had no need of these charts to understand the significance of a cluster of grades in the first grouping on a Princeton transcript. Their value must have been self-evident.
When I was an undergraduate, the seven-grouping grading system was considered an integral part of the entire constellation of Princeton’s originality and uniqueness, what we used to call the seven-point Princeton advantage: (1) the “single faculty” with all professors teaching both undergrad and grad courses; (2) supplementing lectures with the small discussion groups, our famous precepts; (3) three-hour finals, preceded by a two-week reading period; (4) the honor system; (5) a yearlong senior thesis, as well as junior papers, and finally comprehensive examinations in the departmental major; (6) “Princeton in the nation’s service”; (7) the 1-to-7 grading system with its special Mount Olympus, as well as a grade at the bottom of the scale when the cause was failure to adhere to the Honor Code. Taking away the unique grading system was, to my mind, like removing one of the foundation blocks of a special pedagogical edifice unique to Princeton.
Ironically, the traditional Princeton grading system was not abandoned because of pedagogical deficiencies. Rather, it fell victim to the revolt against authority and tradition that swept across university campuses in the wake of May 1968. A social movement sparked by protests against institutional rigidity in France and against the war in Vietnam in the United States rapidly became a generalized phenomenon that targeted longstanding regulations, such as distribution requirements and grading systems. Writing about a comparable social movement in 1830, the pseudonymous “One of the Democracy” had lamented:
That which, in the slang of faction, is called the Spirit of the Age, absorbs, at present, the attention of the world. All confess its omnipotence, advise submission to it. … [E]ven its worshippers assert, that it must carry sweeping revolution into every quarter … (Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 28 , 900-1).
Princeton was not exempt from this enthusiasm. In the words of Dean of the College Edward D. Sullivan, when he charged Professor Sam Glucksberg to chair the committee to examine Princeton’s grading system in a letter of Dec. 6, 1968: “The question of grading is under discussion now … throughout the nation.” The report submitted on Feb. 10, 1969, suggested that although the ideal would be no grades at all or a simple pass-fail system, various factors would require the use of at least some grades; so an A-F system “without pluses and minuses” (emphasis in the original) was proposed. A discontented editorial in The Daily Princetonian (May 5, 1969) objected to the timidity of the change. “Let’s have real grade reform,” the headline trumpeted, as the student writer called for the abolition of all grades in favor of only pass-fail designations, coupled with “written evaluations from teachers.” Seven days later the faculty voted in favor of the new system, albeit amended to include pluses and minuses for A’s, B’s, and C’s, which were considered optional. Thus ended the University’s longstanding and unique contribution to the science of grading – an aspirational system with a built-in brake against grade inflation that also provided a full range of distinctions for evaluating and rewarding superior achievement – lost to the fervor of the Spirit of the Age.
Under Princeton’s current system, in theory all students who deserve an A-range grade will receive one. Yet, at the same time, they know that there is a recommended limit to the percentage of A-range grades. Under the old seven-grouping numerical system, when students understood that anybody could earn a first grouping grade, they might have been more willing to exchange ideas and to collaborate. Yet, when students are aware that there is a recommended limit to the number of A-range grades, then the system, especially in a university of high achievers, inadvertently may encourage the natural human tendency to withhold information and insights, to avoid sharing and collaboration so to prevent competitors from gaining advantage for achieving what could easily be seen as the limited prize of the A-range grade. This and other negative effects were reported anecdotally in Laura Bruno’s “Princeton leads in grade deflation” (USA Today, March 27, 2007). In 2009, the Undergraduate Student Government issued a statement expressing concern about a grading policy that in theory did not establish quotas but in reality appeared to do just that: “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 choice between the unique, historical Princeton seven-grouping numerical grading system no longer in use and the common A+ to F grading system, further modified with a restrictive recommended percentage of A-range grades, reminds me of a distinction that Henri Bergson articulated in the Huxley Lecture delivered at the University of Birmingham in 1911. At that time Bergson distinguished between two approaches to philosophy:
[A]s nothing is easier than to reason geometrically with abstract ideas, [the philosopher] has no trouble in constructing an iron-bound system, which appears to be strong because it is unbending. But this apparent strength is simply due to the fact that the idea with which he works is diagrammatic and rigid and does not follow the sinuous and mobile contours of reality.
Of the two grading systems, the old Princeton seven-grouping grading system adhered far better to “the sinuous and mobile contours of reality.” Shouldn’t that be the goal of all human endeavor?
Richard Etlin ’69 *72 *78 is a Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of the School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, University of Maryland, and a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome. His fifth monograph, In Defense of Humanism: Value in the Arts and Letters (Cambridge University Press, 1996), focuses on creativity, genius, and the imagination. His essay “MOOCs and the forgotten lessons of teaching” was posted July 1, 2013, on the PAW website.
Research for this article was facilitated by Robert Durkee ’69, University vice president and secretary, and by Ann Halliday *78, associate secretary, who provided archival material from the Office of the Secretary and the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, while also securing the assistance of the Office of the Registrar. The author expresses his gratitude for this generous help, while stressing that all opinions and any errors are his own.