August 13, 2014

Faculty Committee Advises Princeton To Change Grade Deflation Policy

A faculty committee’s report on grading policies at Princeton University recommends that guidelines need to be changed, particularly when it comes to limiting the number of “A” grades a professor can give out.

University President Christopher Eisgruber appointed the ad hoc committee last fall to review the undergraduate grading policy, which was adopted a decade ago. The nine members of the committee determined that numerical targets “are too often misinterpreted as quotas,” according to the study, and that they add stress to students’ lives. That policy states that A’s can not account for more than 35 percent of the grades given in undergraduate courses.

The committee surveyed students as part of their reviewing process. Several consider grade deflation a problem, because it forces professors to lower what might be an A to a B plus. “Classes here often feel like shark tanks,” one student wrote. “If I had known about this I very probably would have not attended Princeton despite it being a wonderful university otherwise.”

Another student wrote, “The grading policy is particularly unreasonable in introductory language courses. On the first day of classes, my teacher said that only three of us in a class of 11 would receive A’s. This often means that despite receiving an overall grade of 90+ a student cannot receive an A-grade because some other student got a 91 or 92.”

Another common theme was that the grading policy harms the spirit of collaboration. “Because of grade deflation it has been extremely hard to find any kind of collaborative environment in any department and class I have taken at Princeton,” a student wrote. “Often even good friends of mine would refuse to explain simple concepts that I might have not understood in class for fear that I would do better than them.”

The committee recommended that the University remove numerical targets from the policy, replacing them with grading standards created by each individual department. According to a story in The Daily Princetonian, “The committee suggested that the dean of the college continue to monitor grades across departments and that departments regularly review their grading history to ensure consistency with the standards they adopt.”

Mr. Eisgruber expressed support for the study, calling it “a very thoughtful review of our policies, an excellent report, and a set of recommendations that I fully support,” according to the story. “I agree with the committee that it is important to give students meaningful feedback and clear signals about the quality of their work, and that the numerical targets in our
current policy were undermining our goals rather than advancing them.”

Mr. Eisgruber asked the University’s Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing to review the committee’s report. If they agree with the recommendations, the report could be acted upon in October.