At a Whig-Clio debate last Wednesday, USG president David Ascher and academics chair Todd Rich defended their administration's position on the question of grade inflation. The USG view is outlined in their Response to the Grading Patterns Report and was reiterated by Ascher and Rich at the debate. According to the USG, there is no grade inflation at Princeton. It is true that Princeton students generally receive significantly higher grades than in the past, but this is because students are smarter and teaching methods better than they were before. Students deserve all the A grades they get. End of story.
Some members of the audience seemed happy to be told by Ascher that they were "the top students in the world." I'm sorry to say that the substance of the USG Response does little to bear out that assertion. The USG had an opportunity to thoughtfully comment on an important issue. Instead, they chose to pander to the worst instincts of the student body. The arguments in the Response are self-defeating where they are not specious. They do nothing to address (or even recognize) the threat posed by grade inflation.
The first claim made by the Response is that "today's students are better than those of the past." The evidence? 14,311 students applied to Princeton in 1995 compared to only 8,573 in 1973. This "constitutes a 67-percent increase in the selectivity of the University." I don't think so. An increase in its applicant pool does not automatically make Princeton more selective. How many of those 14,000 would have been rejected in 1973? Even if we concede that admission to Princeton really is more selective than it was, should we expect grades to be going up as a result? Not at all. Bear in mind that the University does not admit students solely on academic merit. So, even if it is increasing, Princeton's "selectivity" does not in itself tell us anything about the grades students should be getting. Needless to say, there is no evidence that incoming students are 67 percent better in academic terms – measured on their SAT scores, say – than they were 25 years ago.
Their next argument is that "a new emphasis on class rank breaks with Princeton tradition." This is just pathetic. Is cheering for Old Nass the best the USG can do? It isn't even consistent. Grade inflation breaks with Princeton tradition, too. If they want to make tradition their master, then the USG should bring back the Gentleman's C. We are then told that "contrived distinctions between Princeton students are likely to be artificial." Well, paint me black and call me a kettle. I imagine that artificial distinctions between students are likely to be contrived, too. I can't see how the representative body of "the top students in the world" imagined that this tautology counted as evidence for anything.
They do offer one plausible argument. They say that "Princeton's emphasis on individual intellectual development should not be sacrificed" and that "rescaling grades does not mean better information for students." Instead, "written evaluations and extensive comments" would be better. We must address "what grades mean" and that "deeper questions (about) what faculty hope to accomplish by assigning grades" must be asked. Ascher repeatedly emphasized these points at the debate. He even held up a little poster with "Emphasis on Learning" written on it.
Far from bolstering the case for an A-filled status quo, this argument leads to the conclusion that grades are meaningless and could be done away with altogether. The comments about intellectual development and written evaluations describe the system in many of the University's graduate programs: no grades (bar a passing grade), detailed feedback and a focus on gaining knowledge rather than getting credits. I don't mean to suggest that this could easily – or should immediately – be implemented for undergraduates. Nor is such a system without its own problems. But it's what the USG are arguing for if they're arguing for anything. Politically, though, they're unwilling to allow anyone's grades to be lowered. This leaves them in the awkward position of saying "grades are meaningless, contrived and artificial – but don't you dare take away my A."
Their only other argument is also their most shortsighted. "If Princeton moves unilaterally to lower its mean grades . . . students will find themselves handicapped relevant to their peers at other schools." Everybody else is doing it, says the USG, so why can't we? At the debate, Ascher argued that if faculty want to single out the very best students, the solution is to award more A+ grades rather than thin out the A's. In effect, the USG prefers to accelerate the spiral of inflation. What will come after the A+, I wonder? Gold stars on your transcript? Flowers from the Dean?
The problem here is one of good faith. Princeton is respected because people believe it gives its students a great education and sets high standards. Right now, people still believe this, even though the evidence suggests that too many A's are being awarded in some fields. But continuous grade inflation debases the value of a Princeton degree. Lost faith in a university's ability to police itself is extraordinarily difficult to restore. That's why it's in the long-run interest of all undergraduates to have a robust grading system, even if they are the best students in the world. If people don't believe the institution can maintain its standards, then no individual's grades will be worth anything, no matter how good they are. A University that awarded only A's couldn't hope to be well-respected; neither could its students hope to be taken seriously. The USG should bite the bullet and face this issue now, instead of trading it for short-term political gain.