The Daily Princetonian
By Angela Cai
Published: Monday, April 27th, 2009
On April 26, 2004, the University faculty voted 156-84 to institute a bold policy to curb rising grades. Five years later, no peer institutions have followed Princeton’s lead, despite Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel’s repeated attempts to encourage them to do so.
Undergraduate deans at several peer institutions said in interviews this week that though they are concerned about rising grades and inconsistent grading practices across departments, they have no concrete plans to emulate Princeton’s policy. They cited concerns about the fairness of instituting university-wide grading policies and inhibiting professors’ freedom to assess academic work as reasons for not following Princeton’s lead.
Yet Malkiel told The Daily Princetonian in 1998 that grade inflation “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.” Thus, as reports of students at other Ivy League schools blanching at the prospect of a B continue to surface, Princeton students and alumni have expressed frustration at the prospect of being unwilling leaders in an ill-followed movement.
Some statistics show Princeton’s plan is working. A-level grades comprised 40.4 percent of all final undergraduate course grades between 2005 and 2008, down from 47 percent in the 2001 to 2004 period before the grading policy was enacted.
Perhaps precisely because it is working, “grade deflation” — as the policy is commonly known — has not been well received by most students, but Malkiel has stood resolutely behind it. So, too, have the nearly two-thirds of the faculty who voted for the policy. According to a 2006 survey by the ‘Prince,’ 94.5 percent of the faculty who voted for the grading policy in 2004 said they would have voted for it again, while 82 percent of those who voted against the policy said they would do so again.
While the percent of A-level grades has been falling at Princeton, grades have been steadily on the rise at other schools. At Brown, the overall percentage of undergraduate A-level grades exceeded 50 percent for the first time in the institution’s history in the last academic year. A-level grades made up more than half of all grades given at Harvard and Dartmouth in 2007.
According to gradeinflation.com — a grading data site compiled by Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired Duke professor and grade inflation expert — the average GPA at Princeton was a 3.28 in 2008, versus Yale’s 3.51.
Malkiel said in an e-mail last week that her counterparts “at two other Ivy League schools have requested all of our materials and have been having discussions in faculty committees about the possibility of taking their own actions.”
“I expect to be invited to meet with department chairs at one of those schools next year,” she added.
But deans around the Ivy League gave no indication that they plan to take immediate action.
Though Penn Dean of the College of Arts and Science Dennis DeTurck said he has been watching Princeton’s progress with interest, he noted that Penn has no immediate plans to emulate the policy.
Dean of Yale College Mary Miller ’75 said in an e-mail that in her 28 years at the university, “the Yale faculty has not discussed college-wide grading policy.”
“I would not want to try to guess what they would or would not consider instituting!” she added.
Michele Moody-Adams, the vice provost for undergraduate education at Cornell, said that the faculty there has also “resisted the idea of a general university policy.”
“I’m amazed that your expectational policy even passed at Princeton,” said Moody-Adams, who will take office as dean of the college at Columbia on July 1.
At Dartmouth, discussions about grading policy are currently at an information-gathering level. Student Assembly president Molly Bode, a senior, said in an e-mail that all Arts and Sciences academic departments have been provided with “a list of questions regarding grade inflation to consider and respond to.” A discussion on potential future action is slated for the fall.
Deans at Harvard and Brown declined to comment for this article, and the provosts at Columbia and Stanford could not be reached for comment. Right after a grade deflation policy was passed at Princeton, John Bravman, vice provost for undergraduate education at Stanford, told the ‘Prince’ that it was “very unlikely” that Stanford would enact a similar policy.
MIT’s dean of undergraduate education, Daniel Hastings, said that MIT does not and will not grade courses on a curve, adding that grades have been flat at the school for the last decade.
The only other elite institution with a school-wide grading policy is Wellesley College, which instituted its stipulation that median grades for introductory level courses be no higher than a B-plus two weeks before Princeton’s grading policy vote.
Even if an earnest discussion were to begin at a peer institution, it may be years before any concrete action is taken at all. At Princeton, the Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing released a report calling for fewer A-range grades in 1998, but the proposal never came to fruition because of faculty and student opposition. Five years later, the Committee released another report, and later that year, the faculty passed the policy.
Though Malkiel has long maintained that other institutions are working to implement similar policies, she recognizes that the process may be very difficult. “It requires a great deal of time,” she said. “If there are other matters high on their agendas, it may be difficult to devote the necessary attention to the effort.”
The fundamental problem that drove the change in grading policy, Malkiel said in her 2007 e-mail “On Grading” to then-undergraduates, was that there was compression of the range of what is considered an acceptable grade. “With compression,” she said, “the A grade had come to cover a spectrum from work that marginally exceeds expectations to truly superior work; the B grade had come to signify work that was barely acceptable.”
DeTurck said he agreed with this reasoning, though he did not see grade compression to be urgent enough at Penn to elicit action. “We’re OK with what’s going on,” he said, adding that if compression becomes more serious, “we will be more inclined to impose some school-wide standard.”
Though Moody-Adams said she would not prefer to see Cornell adopt a Princeton-esque policy because of its potential to “lower grades in a setting where it is not appropriate … such as small seminars” and because of its potential to dishearten students, she said she was concerned about the “decrease in the range of acceptable grade you can give to a student.”
“I don’t think the solution is a formula, but you do need students to be aware that it’s not a shame to get a B or a B-minus,” she said. “I have students looking at a B the same way they see a D in my day. It deeply troubles me.”
While DeTurck said he was also concerned about compression, he noted that part of the rise in grades might be “attributable … to the simple fact that the best students are getting better and better, and so of course you would expect their performance to get better and better.”
Former Harvard Undergraduate Council president Matt Sundquist said the meaning of a grade at Harvard varies depending on academic discipline. “Departments are notoriously easier or harder in their grading, and the culture is that you get better or worse grades depending on which departments,” he explained.
“Certainly the engineering students feel [down] at any institution because they’re doing labs, while other people ... are sitting under a tree reading Nietzsche,” DeTurck noted. “But does that mean the discipline is more difficult or more intense?”
Though the proportion of A-level grades in all disciplines at Princeton has fallen since 2004, there are still gaps across departments. The biggest disparity, however, is not between the humanities and engineering. A-level grades comprised 35 percent of all grades given in the natural and social sciences, 45.5 percent in the humanities and 41.5 percent in engineering, Malkiel said at a faculty meeting in September 2008.
Schools like Columbia, Cornell and Dartmouth are trying to combat such grading disparities by putting students’ grades in context. Student transcripts at Columbia identify what percentage of each class received A’s, while transcripts at Cornell and Dartmouth list the median grade in each course.
The problem with these measures, Malkiel said, is that they don’t change faculty grading practices. “When we had discussions some years ago about implementing such a plan here, we heard significant reservations from both students and faculty,” she added.
DeTurck acknowledged that merely putting pressure on academic departments to curb grade inflation doesn’t work in the long run. “At different times we’ve nudged different departments when the grading standards seemed to be getting too lax,” he said. “That nudge works for a while, but you see a backsliding.”
Prior to 2004, the University attempted to encourage individual departments to tackle rising grades with little success.
Malkiel has long maintained that because the school-wide policy at Princeton has proven numerically successful, other institutions are working to implement similar policies. “I would not be the least bit surprised to see some of our Ivy peers follow in their own way,” she told the ‘Prince’ in March 2006. “Each institution has to work through its own faculty and in its own context,” she added, noting, “That is a long and laborious process.”