We sometimes get questions about what people see in alumni files. One of the more challenging things about reading academic records is dealing with unfamiliar grading rubrics. For example, we shared F. Scott Fitzgerald’s grade card with you a while ago. Though a dropped semester and repeated classes would indicate he did not do so well academically, the actual grades he received—mostly a series of 4s and 5s—are bewildering to modern eyes.
Grading at Princeton has evolved over centuries. Only relatively recently has Princeton University assigned letter grades to students, the latest in a series of radically different systems. In fact, as with other colleges that predate the nineteenth century, the College of New Jersey (Princeton) began without any sort of a grading system. Historians believe Yale first innovated grading as a North American practice in the 1780s, when they began using a scale of descriptive adjectives to measure student performance. The first known reference to a letter grade is from 1883, when a student at Harvard was said to have made a “B.” Still, Harvard employed a wide variety of grading systems, and the letter grading was only one of many in use at the time. They, as did Mount Holyoke, adopted a standard letter grading system in 1897. Rather than an F, Harvard assigned an E for failure.
The earliest evaluations of student performance at Princeton ranked students from 1 to 3, with a note about “distinction” if they rose to the top of the class. These grades evaluated behavior and industry as well as scholarship. Parents would receive a report at the end of each session detailing their son’s ranking in these three categories and a note about his physical condition. Because students were ranked against each other, there was no objective measure of performance. Though ranking as a “3” would mean a student fell to the bottom among his peers, it did not reflect “dishonourable standing,” as one such report informed the parents of H. W. Greene in 1819. (Greene’s parents need not have worried, however; he received a “1” in all three categories and a “1 distinguished (1)” for scholarship, meaning his “merit” in scholarship was the best of all members of the Class of 1820.)
As early as 1834, students were graded on a 100-point scale, but this was not based on strict percentages; rather, it was a ranking of students within their own class. A grade of 50 points or above meant a student passed a course. When the School of Science was established in 1872, it adopted more rigorous standards, requiring a grade of 60 points to pass a course. The 100-point scale was curved with 85 as the average, meaning the registrar, rather than professors, actually assigned the grades based on ranking students among their peers. Notes also specified where a student fell within the class.
This was a highly unpopular system. In 1884, partly in response to student protest, the Board of Trustees approved a change that would rank students within six groups, with those who fell outside these groups—within a seventh group, as the terminology would later call it—failing their classes.
The grouping system evolved over time, though the lowest numbers were always preferable to higher ones. In 1936, the faculty approved a change in the grouping system to allow for more nuance. Rather than just falling into Group 1, Group 2, etc., students were assigned grades to indicate where within their group they fell. The highest grade one could receive was a 1+ (the top of the first group). A 1- would still land one in the first group, but at its bottom. This created the equivalent of four different A-range grades, by contrast to the current letter grading system, with only three such possibilities. A 1+, 1, 1-, and 2+ were all what would now be A-range grades. A grade of 6 or 7 would result in the failure of a course, equivalent to an F.
When Princeton students applied to graduate schools, they sometimes found the grading system confused other institutions. Grading on an A-F scale, something completely unknown when Princeton instituted grading to begin with, had become the standard means of evaluating academic work. Some professors also wondered whether it was useful to grade within the equivalent of 17 different categories. Students worried over these nuances. What made them get a 2+ rather than a 1-, which at most schools would simply be an A- either way? Meanwhile, there were those who insisted these fine distinctions were of benefit to students.
In 1969, the Committee on Examinations and Standing proposed a change to A-F grading, with no equivalent to a 7. Though they recommended +/- grading at the discretion of the instructor, they did not recommend such distinctions be recorded by the registrar, replacing 17 categories with only 5. Two professors offered a counter proposal of a change to A-F grading with +/- qualifiers for grades A-C. Ultimately, their recommendation won approval by the Board of Trustees. This is the system in use at Princeton University today. Using the letter grading with +/- system for A-C-range scores, students can receive 11 possible grades, rather than 17.
Meanwhile, in the spring of 1966, Princeton had offered students another innovation in grading. It became the first Ivy League school to offer the option of taking a course pass or fail, rather than receiving a grade. Standards tightened in 1988, with a change from pass/fail grading to pass, D, or fail, known today on campus as the P/D/F option, meant to encourage those students in these courses to work harder than they might if they could get a “P” for D-level work.
From the 3-point ranking, to the 100-point scale, to the 7-group rubric, to letters, Princeton’s evolving grades in many ways reflect the history of measuring educational achievements in the United States.
Board of Trustees Records (AC120)
Catalogue of the College of New Jersey
Historical Subject Files (AC109)
Office of the Registrar Records (AC116)
This post was prepared with research assistance from Madeline Lea ’16, Allie Lichterman ’16, and Spencer Shen ’16.