Princeton’s grade deflation system and Microsoft’s employee evaluation system essentially operate on the same principles. Managers, like professors, are pressed to evaluate everyone with a grade, and there are set quotas by department for those grades. “If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, two people were going to get a great review, seven were going to get mediocre reviews and one was going to get a terrible review,” a software engineer is quoted as saying in the article. Trade “team” for “class,” and you have what students fear in a small Princeton seminar.
However, in reading this article on Microsoft and reflecting on our own grading policy, it seems as though many of our grievances about deflation schemes are more a form of scapegoating. We, like Microsoft employees, may claim that, “people do everything they can to stay out of the bottom bucket,” leading people to “openly sabotage other people’s efforts,” but I think I would be hard pressed to think of a real example at Princeton. Contrary to the fears of overzealous prefrosh, Princeton students work on their homework and do not plot against each other.
Coming from an education system in which I’d been evaluated against a national standard since I was eight, I was at first quite skeptical of the indulgent and self-congratulatory attitude that I should get an A because I deserve it. How anyone is to know that they deserve a certain grade is beyond me, especially if grades are not tied to an objective standard. A student at Princeton in Beijing, who isn’t a Princeton student, upon receiving a grade much lower than anticipated, argued that she should get her “real grade” on her transcript, not her “curved grade.” I resisted pointing out that her “real grade” only reflected the difficulty of the tests — given the same ability, an easier test would have given her a higher grade — but her “curved grade” reflected her performance relative to peers in one of the most established Chinese language programs in the world. Her “curved grade” seemed more real to me.
However, grade deflation does have serious problems. In throwing around platitudes about fairness, competition and meritocracy, we have overlooked more concrete shortcomings. Grade deflation is not an injustice, it is poorly implemented.
Firstly, Princeton’s grade deflation policy rests on an insurmountably small sample size. If you happen to have one year of particularly bright students in a department, good grades will be harder to achieve than usual. Larger sample sizes decrease the variability across years; there may be years with a couple smarter-than-average students, but if there are enough students in the department, there will be dumber-than-average students to balance them out. Princeton does try to mitigate the problem of small sample size by setting quotas for departments, not classes, but this is not enough. Over 1.6 million take the SAT every year; there are seven undergraduate students in the Slavic languages and literatures department. If the spirit of grade deflation is to hold ourselves up to a more concrete standard, grade deflation is really a very inconsistent methodology.
Secondly, most systems that curve also adopt a different gradation to prevent misleading comparison with non-curved or other incompatible systems. International Baccalaureate has an obscure 45 point system to prevent comparison with local scores. However, by using the grade point average system, Princeton places its overall lower GPAs in direct comparison with GPAs from other schools. It’s inaccurate. If Princeton feels it has the clout to grade deflate, it should also have the courage to create its own grading system, so that employers and students are forced to consider what a certain score actually means.
Before coming to Princeton, I had been assessed on everything from 1-4 to a Russian alphanumeric matrix but never an A-B-C gradation. With no way to compare my Princeton grades with my high school grades and no concept of what a “good” grade was, my grades did not seem deflated or unfair. They were just grades. I felt more clueless than even the average freshman, but forming my expectations around my Princeton performance was much healthier and less stressful than trying to reach an unrealistic standard based on my localized high school grading conditions. A new grading system would allow everyone to value a top Princeton score for what it is — the top 35 percent — and cut its ties to an inflated national standard.
With a change in president, we are likely reaching a chance to reconsider our grade deflation policy — or at least revise it. Microsoft and Princeton are giants in their fields and can coast on reputation, but we ought to seriously consider whether grade deflation as it is implemented now fulfills its intended goals.
William Beacom is a sophomore from Calgary, Canada. He can be reached at email@example.com.