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USG, faculty react to grade inflation

In the week since a faculty committee issued a report both documenting and criticizing a meteoric rise in grade inflation over the last two dozen years, reactions have run the gamut.

With the USG lining up on one side as stalwart defenders of a trend towards higher grades, and the report's authors – the Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing – lining up on the other as critics of grading standards gone awry, the lines have been drawn for a wide-ranging discussion about what the importance of grades.

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And everyone has an opinion.

The USG's responded to the committee's findings in a memo issued yesterday.

"Apart from the desire to differentiate artificially between Princeton students, the report offers no compelling reason to explain why grades need to be re-centered," wrote USG president David Ascher '99 and academics chair Todd Rich '00. "The report clearly recommends discussion with the twin objectives of lowering mean grades and broadening the dispersion of grades awarded without demonstrating the benefits of doing so."

Expand the dialogue

Ascher said the USG's response was meant to expand the dialogue. "When the Dean of the College tells the faculty explicitly that they're giving out inflated grades, faculty start to feel pressure to change their grading practices," Ascher said. "We hope that doesn't happen until student opinions are heard."

However, Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel said grade inflation has gone unchecked for too long already, and said she demands immediate efforts to roll back the trend.

"What we worry about chiefly is that we are losing the ability to discriminate among levels of proficiency – to differentiate the competent from the excellent," Malkiel said in an interview last week. "By not being able to make those distinctions, it seems to us that we are really falling short of our responsibility as educators."

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The committee's report recommends that the first step in combating grade inflation should be for all academic departments to meet before the end of the month and discuss possible strategies. Yesterday, however, several department heads said they were not completely convinced that grade inflation is necessarily bad.

'Difficult courses'

Civil engineering department chair Erhan Cinlar said he would like to see what would happen if students at other schools took exams from Princeton classes. "My students will excel and their students will pretty much fail," Cinlar said. "At Princeton, we're teaching the most difficult courses. Our courses are not for the weak-kneed."

Comparative literature chair Robert Hollander, however, said even the high quality of Princeton students is not enough to account for the staggering rise in grades. "We're not that good," Hollander said, explaining that he sees grade inflation as a serious problem.

Grade inflation will be a topic of discussion in the history department meeting later this week, according to acting chair Daniel Rodgers. However, such conversations in the past have not been all that productive, he said.

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"Grading is often thought of by faculty members as a private matter in which their colleagues' influence is not particularly welcome," said Rodgers. "Faculty do not find it easy to talk about the grading patterns in each others' courses."

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