Enforcing grade deflation
The email is an annual grading report, formatted as a PDF document with three rows. The last row displays the grading distribution for each of the courses the professor taught the previous year; the second row indicates the number of A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s and F’s given out by all faculty members in his or her department; and the top row shows the University’s grading distribution as a whole.
No other comments or letters are included with the grading report.
According to the website of the Dean of the College, each department is expected to enforce the grading policy instituted in the fall of 2004 by former Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel. The policy, commonly known as grade deflation, stipulates that A’s must account for no more than 35 percent of the grades given in undergraduate courses.
Despite the complex nature of the policy, professors interviewed for this article agreed that the grading report they receive each September represents the University’s primary method of ensuring that professors adhere to the grading policy.
For the most part, their interpretation of and response to this annual report depends primarily on the nature of their academic field. Many professors in the sciences praised the policy, but noted that the report itself did not have much of an effect on their current grading practices. In other departments, however, professors said they have had to grapple with adjusting their grading practices to reflect the standards outlined in the report.
Martin Semmelhack, the associate chair of the chemistry department, noted that the process of grading chemistry students has always been an “independent type of analysis.” He added that his organic chemistry course’s grading distribution had roughly followed the University’s current policy long before it was instituted.
“We haven’t felt much pressure to change,” said Semmelhack, adding that the report is a “good guideline, a general idea” of how professors should grade their students.
Similarly, ecology and evolutionary biology professor James Gould said in an email that he takes the grading report seriously for the two large classes that he teaches, EEB 211: The Biology of Organisms and EEB 311: Animal Behavior. He noted, however, that reactions to the grading policy have depended on the historic differences in grading practices between the hard sciences and the humanities.
“The once-new grading policy has tempered to some degree the extravagant — and, one supposes, unrealistic — grading in the humanities while simply asking the sciences to maintain the status quo,” Gould said.
Indeed, the past discrepancy in grades among disciplines — with humanities students being graded more leniently than those in the social sciences, and engineers being graded more leniently than natural science students — was the primary catalyst for the new grading policy, according to the website of the Dean of the College.
Dean of the Faculty David Dobkin said in an email that a “wild distribution of A-grades across departments” existed before the policy was enacted. “Now, several years later, the distribution is much flatter,” he said, adding that the effect has been to make “grading fair across departments.”
Wilson School professor Stanley Katz attributed this inconsistency to the fact that testing and grading social sciences and humanities is simply more complicated.
“In the sciences, either you know how a certain cell works, or you don’t,” Katz said. “Nobody knows what Plato thinks about the nature of evil, and almost any opinion has some merit.”
For some fields that span multiple subjects, grading can be more complex. Anthropology professor Alan Mann noted that the interdisciplinary nature of his courses, which center on biological anthropology, complicate the grading process.
“I find the grading distribution to be not terrifically helpful to me because I straddle the social and biological sciences,” Mann said. “That leaves me in a position where I do not conform to either pattern.”
Many social sciences and humanities professors said they have faced more difficulty in adapting their individual grading practices to the University’s expectations. As a result, their responses to the annual grading report differ widely.
William Gleason, an English professor and the acting director of the Program in American Studies, noted that the report is “useful to see where my percentages stand in comparison to my department and the University” and that “it could be instructive if there were radical differences” between these numbers.
However, he emphasized that he does not use the report to govern his grading practices, but rather relies on a personal grading rubric and collaboration with preceptors to ensure that students receive grades that they deserve.
“For me, that’s the most important aspect of keeping the grades as objective as possible,” Gleason said, referring to the grading rubric that he creates for his classes before the start of each semester. “I spend much more time — exponentially more time — doing that, versus studying the grading report.”
Like Gleason, Katz also said that though he sees the report as informative, he has his own system to standardize his grading.
Katz explained that he “internalizes a distributional norm” when he grades his students’ papers, noting that about a third of his students earn A’s.
However, he observed that he doesn’t find the University-wide numbers included on the grading report particularly helpful because of the discrepancy in grades across departments.
Mann said that he prefers to grade students on an individual basis and give them a “fair hearing” rather than using either a standardized or internalized metric. Due to the “subjective” nature of grading anthropology exams, Mann said that the grades in each of his classes vary widely from year to year.
He added that he finds the distribution presented on the grading report helpful in that it provides insight into his own teaching methods.
“It has a lot to do with how good a teacher I am that semester and how interested the students are,” he said.
Professors also said that the size of the class influenced the importance they placed on the discrepancy between their grading and the University’s standard.
With small seminars, Katz said that the format of the class — which allows students to develop their work over a longer period of time and establish a close relationship with him — inevitably skews the expected distribution towards a higher number of A’s.
Gould added that for his two seminar-style courses — including a writing seminar — the year-to-year changes in the composition of classes make the report less useful.
“I am surprised that the report does not average the last several years for these seminars,” he said.
The variation in how professors implement the ideal grading distribution outlined in the report suggests that West College takes a relatively hands-off approach to the enforcement of the policy.
Dobkin said that “there is no enforcement of the policy” and that the current percentage of A-grades is around 40 percent.
Nannerl Keohane, also a professor in the Wilson School, said in an email that she sees the grading report as a “routine” practice that is not “stipulative or coercive.”
However, Katz’s experiences with the enforcement of the grading policy under Malkiel hint at a different story than Dobkin and Keohane imply.
“With the previous dean, she used to visit [the Wilson School] once a year, and make it very clear that she was unhappy if we were above the norm,” Katz said. “And that’s important — it sends a message.”
Members of the Faculty Committee on Grading would occasionally accompany Malkiel, Katz said.
“The people who came with her looked a little embarrassed, as if they were thinking, ‘I’m not quite sure why I’m here,’ ” Katz said.
Katz also noted that enforcing the specified 35 percent A-distribution in the Wilson School’s junior task forces, many of whom are taught by visiting professors and members of the United States government, has yielded mixed results.
“The CIA does not give A’s, nor does the Treasury,” he explained. “One year, a distinguished retired administrator gave too many A’s, and I said to [Malkiel], who used to work for him, ‘Would you like to go tell him that?’ And she said, ‘No, you tell him.’” Both Malkiel and Dean of the College Valerie Smith did not respond to a request for comment.
Katz also suggested that the lack of discourse between the faculty and the administration regarding the grading policy — apart from the annual report — is problematic.
“We have minimal faculty governance,” Katz said. “Many faculty feel like they’re not too much involved with this, I don’t know anybody on the [Faculty Committee on Grading]. And one-third of the faculty meetings are cancelled every year.”
Dobkin, however, noted that the Faculty Committee on Grading’s goal is precisely to engage professors in a discussion about the policy.
While Mann said that the current policy has its strengths and weaknesses, he suggested that it has forced faculty members to be more conscientious about the grades they give students.
He recalled a discussion with a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who gave “every student an A” and only spent half an hour grading exams. In contrast, he said, Princeton’s policy gives students more opportunities to learn from their grades.
“On many levels, Princeton students with the grading system may not be able to garner the kind of GPA that Yale and Harvard [students] get,” Mann said. “But they’re getting a better education in the sense that they’re learning what is a really good paper or really good exam.”
Katz shared this sentiment, noting that while grading is “not a natural act for a faculty member,” it allows students to “maximize their learning outcomes.”
“If too many students are getting too many A’s, we’re not providing that much information to them,” he said.
However, Mann said he feels somewhat frustrated when pre-medical students in his courses express concern about not making the GPA cutoff for medical school despite performing very well in his class and on the entrance exam.
“That’s a very legitimate concern, and it bothers the heck out of me,” Mann said. “So in the end I’m sort of ambivalent about [the policy].”
And in the end, Mann said, other universities’ decisions not to follow Princeton and adopt the policy might be the greatest obstacle to the effectiveness of the grading policy.
“There was every expectation that we were going to be a trendsetter, that our peers were going to do the same thing,” Mann said. “But when they didn’t, that left us hanging out on a branch. Had they gone along with this, there wouldn’t be anything wrong with this system. But they didn’t.”