Students in the chemical engineering department received a memo as they prepared for final exams, confirming that regardless of the size of the class, only 35 percent of the students enrolled would receive A-range grades.
"Yes, Princeton admits great students and perhaps on an ab solute scale they should all receive A's," departmental representative Jay Benziger said in the memo. "But the grades at Princeton must make those fine distinctions between off scale, phenomenal and merely excellent students."
The chemical engineering department is one of many that have altered grading policies to meet new University standards limiting the percentage of students who receive A-range grades.
The policy is one of the most dramatic moves taken by an elite university to combat the nationwide trend towards grade inflation.
The Daily Princetonian contacted 35 department and program chairs, of which 21 responded. While eight departments said they were already in compliance with the new policy, 13 said they have had to adapt.
Each department developed its own method of implementing the new standards.
Most department chairs said they reminded professors to consider the new policies when assigning grades, while four departments applied the grading caps on a class-by-class basis [see chart, page 3].
Many students interviewed in the past two weeks reported the new policies increased levels of stress during the semester, though most said their professors did not explicitly mention the new policies in class. Of the professors who addressed the new standards, some reassured students that no quotas would be enforced, while others said they would follow the guidelines strictly, students said.
Student and faculty reactions revealed a campus still highly divided and uncertain about the effects of the new grading standards.
The guidelines – which recommend that A-range grades be awarded to no more than 35 percent of students enrolled in a department's courses and 55 percent of independent work – were implemented this fall after being passed 2-1 in a faculty vote last April.
At the time, student government leaders adamantly opposed the change and some faculty said it violated their right to teach as they wished.
Malkiel recently moved to quell some concerns by informing students through email that she is writing to approximately 3,000 employers, graduate and professional schools and fellowship competitions to explain the new policies. A statement will also be attached to transcripts to "explain how Princeton transcripts should be read," she said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian.
A new faculty committee on grading is also being created "to look at the grading record of the departments in previous years, and see how different departments have done, and give advice to departments that seem to be having trouble [in implementation]," Malkiel said.
The USG created a task force in November to investigate the effects of grade inflation and submit periodic reports to University administrators.
How departments complied
Departments will continue to use a "heterogeneous approach" rather than adopt a uniform policy of implementation, Malkiel said, in part to address concerns that one strategy would not accommodate the needs of both large and small departments.
The new guidelines represent University expectations, not quotas, Malkiel said. Though the percentage of A-range grades awarded by a department may vary from year to year, "if faculty are really being responsible in grading . . . over time, on average, about 35 percent of students will produce A-level work," she said.
Some departments, including the Wilson School, Chemical Engineering and Slavic Languages and Literatures, decided the fairest way to enforce the policy is on a per-class basis.
The economics department has instituted different "target" percentages by course level, allowing for more A-range grades in upper-level classes. A-range grades should be awarded to 30 percent of students in introductory courses, 35 percent in required courses and 40 percent in upper-level courses, said economics professor Elizabeth Bogan.
Many department chairs surveyed noted that professors would be accorded a degree of flexibility in assigning grades.
"We intend to abide by the spirit of the new grading expectations, and as a department we decided to entrust their implementation to each professor, who is obviously in the best position to evaluate the work of her or his students," chair of the English department Claudia Johnson said in an email.
Chairs of some small departments, including classics, said they avoided implementing strict guidelines because the classes are too small for grade distributions to be statistically meaningful.
Computer science professor Andrew Appel noted that a "loophole" of the policy applied to freshman seminars, where the proportion of A's distributed did not "come out of anyone's 'A budget.'"
Departments made further changes to control A-range grades awarded for independent work, which includes junior papers and senior theses.
Many have made grading standards more rigorous in order to ensure that students' advisers, who oversee their projects, do not award unfairly high grades.
Some departments, including astrophysics, have increased the number of faculty members who read each project. Other departments hold faculty meetings to discuss which papers are the most outstanding, Malkiel said.
Grading the policy
Many department chairs said they will evaluate grade distributions from fall semester this month. While most said it is too early to predict the effects of the policy, it has had a discernible effect in at least one department.
The operations research and financial engineering (ORFE) department awarded A-range grades to 38 percent of students this semester, down from an average of 50 percent during the past five years, according to chair Ehran Çinlar.
Çinlar said the grades in his own course, which, broke down naturally to roughly 38 percent A's, but he is worried that the lower grades would put his students at a comparative disadvantage to students at other universities.
"I'm really very happy with my students, they work very hard, and I don't see why I should be giving them low grades," he said. "Nowhere at Harvard or Yale or Stanford do undergrads get a course of this difficulty, so why should I try to kick my own students?"
Many upperclass students interviewed were concerned about the policy's effects on their prospects after graduation. Many were skeptical that Princeton's grades would hold special status when they applied to jobs and graduate schools – especially at some professional schools where admissions are based on a numerical formula that includes GPA.
"It's nice that Malkiel is sending out these disclaimers stapled to our transcripts – but I really doubt that any of these [admissions officers] care," Rachel Zwillinger '05 said.
But Bogan said deserving students stand to benefit from stricter grading.
"Look, if you're in the top third, [the policy] makes your grading stronger," said Bogan, who already complied with the guidelines in her introductory economics courses. "If we don't [refine the grading levels], you don't know if [top students] are from the top of the class or the middle of the class."
Raising the stakes
In interviews with students, a common theme was an increased level of grade anxiety across campus.
"People seemed a lot more stressed out, in general," said Joseph Bradley '06, a computer science major. "They seemed to be working harder."
Chief Medical Officer Daniel Silverman said many students suggested the policy would lead to an increase in anxiety. "I think it will, for the first year or two — it might become a self-fulfilling prophecy," he said.
But he added that the stress would fade in time, as freshmen enter the University with the policy already in place.
Some students said the new policy had led to a more competitive environment in classes, making students less willing to work together on problem sets — especially if departments enforced the policy on a per-course basis.
"The way we do our problem sets and the way we work together, it's a real group," said Patrick Ryan '06, a chemical engineering major. "That's how we learn the material . . . what if all of [a group's members] do A work?"
Adriana Willsie '07 said she feels the talk of grades has shifted the focus away from learning.
"If you want to get the highest grade in a precept, it's going to be pretty competitive and pretty hard to relax," said Willsie, who added that she was never able to "break the ice" with her classmates in her ENG 231: Dirty Words precept.
As Kirk Hou '06 put it, "I felt like it pressured us to work harder, but I didn't learn any more."
The debate continues
Professor John Fleming said his colleagues in the English department have been skeptical of the new guidelines – which he called "mindless and mechanistic formulae" — from the start.
Fleming voiced the common criticism that forced grade deflation is artificial in the University's high-achieving environment. "It continues not to seem realistic to me that brilliant, well-prepared and highly motivated students are artificially going to become mediocre, average students," he said. "The really hard decision we made was to admit you."
Other faculty members, including Benziger from the chemical engineering department, argue that some level of distinction should be made even at the top.
Other professors are unfazed by the attention on the grading policy. "I have always graded on the scale now being recommended," religion professor Jeffrey Stout said. "So the only change I have noticed is that students seem a little less shocked by the grades I am giving them."