Last week, President Eisgruber charged a committee of nine faculty members to review Princeton’s grade deflation policy in order to determine whether the policy has had “unintended impacts upon the undergraduate academic experience that are not consistent with our broader educational goals.” The Editorial Board has repeatedly taken the position that grade deflation is detrimental to Princeton students and the overall mission of the University and is encouraged by Eisgruber’s revisiting of the policy. Today, in light of this announcement, the Board reiterates its disapproval of the grade deflation policy and proposes the potential alternative that grade distributions for courses be reported internally to Princeton students.
The board continues to believe that the grade deflation policy, which holds that no more than 35 percent of grades in any given department should be A-pluses, A’s or A-minuses, is unfair and has negative consequences for Princeton students.
Firstly, holding departments and professors to an arbitrary numerical cutoff for the number of A-range grades they may award undermines the ideal of students receiving the grades they merit. Despite the fact that the policy is intended to operate at the department level, professors often enforce it on the level of individual classes. This is problematic because whether a student has mastered the course material and done excellent work is not contingent on that student outperforming 65 percent of the class, but on that student’s individual knowledge and performance. There is no reason that a maximum of 35 percent of students in a given class can do excellent work, but the current grading policy incentivizes professors to set curves and give out grades in a distribution that matches the University policy, rather than award individual students the grades they deserve. Moreover, the Board does not feel that there is a compelling reason to believe that a maximum of 35 percent of students in a given department will be doing excellent work at any given time.
Secondly, the Board believes that the grade deflation policy damages the prospects of Princeton graduates relative to graduates of our peer institutions in the competition for jobs, fellowships and graduate school placements. In the years since the implementation of the policy, none of Princeton’s peer institutions have followed our lead. The grade deflation policy shifts the distribution of Princeton grade point averages such that fewer Princeton students are eligible for jobs and fellowships with minimum GPA cutoffs. Furthermore, the Board believes that knowledge of Princeton’s policy is not sufficient to cause potential employers or graduate schools to judge lower Princeton GPAs equivalent to higher, non-deflated GPAs of students from schools like Harvard or Yale — thus harming the future prospects of Princetonians.
Thirdly, the policy is currently implemented in an inconsistent fashion. Some professors immediately inform students in their class that no more than 35 percent of the grades they give will be in the A-range despite the fact that the policy was intended to function at the level of departments rather than classes. Other professors openly acknowledge that they will not follow the dictates of the policy. This inconsistency is another reason to doubt the merits of the current grading policy.
For these reasons, among numerous others, the Board recommends the repeal of the grade deflation policy. However, the Board recognizes that the policy was designed to address legitimate concerns regarding the gradual inflation of grades across academia and disparities in grading across departments. One potential policy that could help address these problems is publishing the course grade distributions on SCORE so that they would be accessible to students, faculty and the administration.
Publicizing grade distribution information would increase the transparency for students, placing all students on an equal playing field when trying to figure out the relative difficulty of a course. Furthermore, professors would be incentivized to apply rigorous grading standards to their courses, so that their courses do not gain a reputation for being easy A’s and attract unprepared students. Professors with courses that have grade distributions that are consistently skewed toward A’s may be subjected to informal shaming from administrators or fellow faculty. Such an incentive would help check grade inflation without imposing arbitrary numerical limits on A grades. Lastly, increasing the availability of information about grade distributions in different departments could help professors to gauge the relative difficulty of courses in their department as opposed to others — potentially helping bring grading standards in different fields into greater alignment.
This proposal is one potential alternative to Princeton’s current policy. The Board encourages President Eisgruber and the committee tasked with examining grade deflation to consider the strength of the numerous arguments against the policy and hopes that it will propose a reasonable alternative that addresses the problem of grade inflation while avoiding many of the pitfalls that problematize the current policy.