In Response to: About-Face on Grading? [6]

The following is an expanded version of a letter from PAW’s Nov. 12, 2014, issue.

I am very disappointed by the proposed discontinuance of the grading policy as described in PAW (On the Campus, Sept. 17), and by what seem to me to be red herrings in some of the arguments against that policy.

First of all, it is upsetting that there should be a need for such a policy. It cannot be the case that, even in the highly selected Princeton student body, a Lake Wobegon group in which every student is above average, there should not be a distribution of performances in a course.

One red herring is the idea that Princeton grades are a measure of comparison with other universities. When I graded my students at Hunter College, I did not grade them as if they were at Princeton. How could I? Course grades reflect an assessment of the students’ mastery, broadly speaking, of the material presented to them. The level of that material will properly vary with the capabilities of the students. One would expect that it would be set such that only the very best students would be able to master most of it, and that some minimum effort would be required to achieve a passing grade.

Naturally, that level is not set in a vacuum. From discussions with colleagues at other universities, among other things, one can judge how one’s course level compares to similar ones elsewhere. One can express that judgment in recommendations, written or verbal. The students’ grades, however, can have reference only to standing in the course.

The pedagogical benefit to a student in knowing that standing is considerable, if not the “huge” one that President Eisgruber ’83 seems to require. It is a major factor in telling a student to what extent improvement is needed and how his/her study regimen is working. (In the bad old days, when Princeton accepted any old clodpoll — you only had to ask nicely — our grades were posted anonymously. I found that very helpful.) Contrariwise, uniformly high (or low) grades are of no help to either the student or the adviser.

The idea that the instructor should best know what grade a student deserves, expressed by Professor Jerome Silbergeld in the PAW article, is certainly true. His statement’s implication, that no one else has a stake in that grade, is completely wrong. Course standards are set by the instructor, but Princeton’s reputation as an educational institution is based largely on the perception that its exit standards are high. If those standards are set at a point at which a lesser effort still earns a high grade, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the students are not being challenged sufficiently. This should be a matter of great concern to the institution and to the students, whose outside assessments depend very much on the perceived quality of the institution.

Another argument that seems to me to be completely beside the point is the one that couples the grading policy to an increase of student stress. The purpose of grades is educational; they are not given to alter the psychological state of the student. Princeton is not a rest home. Moreover, students should be aware that one is competing with one’s peers all of one’s working life. That competition is commonly pass/fail: One person gets the job, or the promotion, or whatever, and the rest do not. How about that for stress? A competition for grades is a relatively benign one — a grade of C will not cost you a job, or make you go hungry.

Finally, there is the astounding argument that the grading policy is bad because it affects the recruitment of students. What kind of student does Princeton want to recruit? Does she want students who are willing to work to grow intellectually, or ones who want the cachet of a Princeton education without the effort? What is the benefit of having more weak student applications? Why lower the University’s exit standard, and ultimately its reputation, to change from an acceptance ratio of one in 10 to one in 11 (or whatever the numbers are)? Astonishing.

What is not surprising is the revelation that places like Yale and Stanford are using the current policy as a recruiting tool “against us.” Well, of course; and they probably can get football players that Princeton cannot. Surely Princeton can use their grading policies against them. Do you, as a student, want fellow students who are intellectually curious and active, or do you want to sit in lectures where you can’t see over the heads of the athletes in the front row (here I am talking only about athletes at places like Yale and Stanford – not Princeton)?

Seriously, and basically, the reasons for a change in policy seem both weak and wrong-headed. The result will be that Princeton’s academic quality — and reputation — will be lowered, not enhanced. It is a move in the wrong direction.