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Proposals presented to curb grade inflation

By Ruth Stevens

Princeton NJ -- A set of proposals to bring grade inflation under control at Princeton will be presented to the faculty at its April 26 meeting.

The proposals, sent by Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel to faculty members on April 6, are intended to establish a common grading standard across the University of less than 35 percent A's for undergraduate courses and less than 55 percent A's for independent work. They also seek to provide clear guidelines for faculty and students about the meaning of letter grades.

Malkiel distributed the proposals on behalf of the Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing, which first called for faculty to take "collective responsibility for halting grade inflation and grade compression at Princeton" in February 1998.

She also has distributed the proposals to students, is conducting a series of discussions with undergraduates and has made background materials available on the Web at <www.princeton.edu/~odoc/grading_proposals/> .

"By adopting [these proposals], the faculty will be better able to give students the carefully calibrated assessment they deserve of the quality of their course work and independent work," Malkiel wrote in a cover memo. "The proposed grading standard responds to the desire of the department chairs that all departments be asked to meet common expectations. It responds to the desire of students for evenhandedness in grading across the departments. And it positions Princeton to take national leadership in tackling what has seemed an intractable national problem."

Since the proposals were disseminated, the University has attracted national media attention for its efforts to address the issue. The proposals call for departments and programs to award less than 35 percent A's (A+, A, A-) for undergraduate courses and less than 55 percent A's for junior and senior independent work. These percentages resemble the grading patterns at Princeton in undergraduate courses and independent work from 1987 to 1992.

According to data provided by seven other Ivy League institutions, Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago, the more recent percentages of A grades given in undergraduate courses at these institutions range from about 44 to 55 percent A's. Between those two poles, two institutions fell around 45 to 46 percent, four (including Princeton) between 47 and 48 percent, and three in the 49 to 51 percent range. There is no systematic way of comparing independent work grades.

A 'social compact'

Rather than prescribing a set of rules, the Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing is advocating a "social compact" in which departments would agree to meet an institutional grading standard and determine how to meet that standard.

"It does not require every faculty member to grade the same way," according to the proposal. "It does not require that every course have the same grade distribution. Rather, it seeks to vest maximum flexibility and room for judgment in each individual department, at the same time that it asks each department to agree to meet a common institutional standard."

In addition to the cover memo and the grading proposals, the materials made available to faculty and students include an extensive list of questions and answers about grading. One question is dealt with at length: "How would a new institutional grading standard affect the fortunes of our students in graduate and professional school admission, national fellowship competitions and the job market?" The answer includes testimonials from correspondence and conversations with medical schools, law schools, fellowship administrators and employers. Most applauded the effort to get grade inflation under control, saying it would not compromise the futures of Princeton students and, in some cases, would be looked upon favorably.

The background materials also include: grading definitions; tables showing the distribution of grades in 100 to 400 level courses, in junior independent work and in senior thesis/independent work; and a summary of grading initiatives that dates to February 1998.

In her cover memo, Malkiel noted some progress over the years in increasing awareness of grading practices through the widespread distribution to faculty of grading data and a "Guide to Good Grading Practices."

"Curbing grade inflation will require more aggressive steps than we have taken," she wrote. "These proposals are designed to serve that purpose. They grow out of an explicit mandate from the department chairs to develop a grading standard that applies across the institution. Because no single department has any incentive to act unilaterally to address grade inflation, the chairs reasoned, the provision of a University-wide grading standard that all departments must observe will make it possible for all departments to cooperate."