Faculty Committee Recommends Ending Grade Deflation Targets

A faculty committee is recommending that Princeton reverse course on its 10-year attempt to curb grade inflation that has been widely unpopular with students. The University should drop numerical targets for A’s, which are too often “misinterpreted as quotas,” and instead allow departments to set their own grading standards, the committee said. The changes could be voted on by the faculty as early as October.

The faculty voted in 2004 to adopt a policy recommending that each department limit A grades to 35 percent for undergraduate course work and to 55 percent for junior and senior independent work. The percentage of A’s dropped from 47 percent in 2001-04 to 41.8 percent in 2010-13.

But the policy raised a number of concerns, and few colleges followed suit. In his fourth month in office, President Eisgruber ’83 appointed a group of nine faculty members to review the policy and determine whether it meets the University’s goals with as few negative consequences as possible.

The group’s report was released Aug. 7. In a statement, Eisgruber praised the committee for “a set of recommendations that I fully support.”

Many students have maintained that the grading policy increases academic stress and discourages collaboration. In addition, they voiced concerns that the policy negatively affects job opportunities, graduate-school admissions, and applications for top fellowships. The committee said that the one “undeniable link” that it found between GPA and postgraduate position was for the small ROTC contingent, for whom GPA has a large impact on graduates’ first assignment.

Outside the campus, the faculty committee said, a perception that top grades are limited “sends the message that students will not be properly rewarded for their work” and may be affecting Princeton’s admissions yield. “Coaches find the perception of the grading policy a significant obstacle to recruitment, making it more difficult for them to attract the best student-athletes to Princeton,” the report said.

The committee said it was “surprised to note that students at other schools (e.g., Harvard, Stanford, and Yale) use our grading policy to recruit against us.” Admission Dean Janet Rapelye told the group that removing numerical targets would make grading less of an issue among prospective students and their families.

The grading policy adopted a decade ago had two goals, and the committee said that one — to maintain fair and consistent grading standards across departments — is “not appropriate.” It suggested that meaningful standards should be detailed and “highly course- and discipline-specific.” The committee supported the other goal of the policy — providing students with clear feedback about the quality of their work – but said that grades are not the only way or even necessarily the best way to provide such feedback.

The committee noted that after a period of “substantial grade inflation” from 1974 through 2003, grades fell sharply through 2005 in advance of the current grading policy. The fraction of A grades continued to decline a bit for a few years, then increased between 2009 and 2013.

In surveys conducted for the committee, alumni and parents strongly favored the goals of the grading policy, but nearly as many felt that it has been ineffective. A majority of students supported the policy’s goals but were strongly negative on its implementation, effectiveness, and influence on their academic experience. Faculty members were roughly equal on both sides, though humanists were more strongly opposed than natural scientists.

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