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University research reveals grade inflation over 24 years

A detailed report released yesterday by a faculty committee studying grade inflation shows that students across the board now receive far better grades than they did 24 years ago. The report goes on to recommend that academic departments begin work immediately to combat the trend.

The report, issued by the Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing, found that the most salient difference between grades in 1974 and grades in 1997 is a movement toward higher grades that has steadily progressed in all departments – including engineering and the natural sciences – and is growing still.

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According to the committee, such trends lead to a laundry list of problems.

"The faculty owes students a more finely tuned assessment of their performance, along with clearer signals about what grades mean," the report reads.

The authors of the report were careful to note, however, that the grades Princeton professors assign are very much in line with those given at a selection of "peer institutions" such as Harvard, Stanford and Yale.

In an attempt to roll back the trends of the past few decades, the report – issued this week to all faculty members – recommends that each academic department meet within the next few weeks to discuss strategies for refining their grading standards. Although no firm recommendations are made, the report hints at a range of possibilities, from holding more in-class examinations to offering contextual information on students' transcripts.

Dissenting opinions

The prospect of such changes, however, did not sit well yesterday with the handful of students who had been provided with copies of the report.

USG academics chair Todd Rich '00 said he took issue both with the conclusions of the report and with the way the report was drafted. "Teaching has improved, the student body has improved and students have become more motivated to get good grades," said Rich, denying that lower standards have led to grade inflation.

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He also noted that the committee that drafted the report consists of a combination of a dozen professors and administrators, but does not include students. "I want students on Examinations and Standing," Rich said.

For Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel, chair of the committee that drafted the report, however, decisions as to how professors grade are none of students' business.

"That students should be involved in saying 'This is what an 'A' really means,' quite frankly is not right," Malkiel said, adding that there are related issues for which students will be directly involved in the decision-making.

USG president David Ascher '99 called the assertion that students should have no stake in how professors grade "ridiculous."

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"I would say that I agree with (Malkiel) that faculty should be the ones who decide how to grade, and that's one of the reasons I'm concerned with this report," said Ascher, explaining that the committee was imposing a new standard on professors for how they should grade.

'Lone-ranger'

"I don't want Princeton to be the lone-ranger in terms of curbing grade inflation because if Princeton acts alone, Princeton will lose its competitive edge," Ascher said.

He added that moves to combat grade inflation represent a real problem for students applying to graduate school or for a job.

At least one professor yesterday seemed to agree. "It's just going to allow the McKinseys of the world to say, 'I've got a kid from Princeton with a 3.4 (GPA) and a kid from Stanford with a 3.8 – let's take the kid from Stanford,'" said Don Drakeman, a lecturer in the politics department and president and CEO of Medarex.

Malkiel said such concerns will be considered and dealt with appropriately.

"This is not a Princeton-specific issue and it really can only be dealt with effectively if other institutions like this try to take effective steps," Malkiel said.

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