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Princeton announces committee to review controversial grade deflation policy

The University’s controversial grade deflation policy — which stipulates that no more than 35 percent grades given out in any department should be A’s — will come under review over the next year, the University announced Monday morning.

The review of the grading policy comes only three months after new University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 took over from former University President Shirley Tilghman, and also on the same day Eisgruber began a tour that will take him to three continents in order to introduce himself to alumni.

At the first of these events, held on Monday night in New York City and moderated by University Trustee and journalist Charles Gibson ’65, Eisgruber noted that grade deflation was the number one issue raised during an initial ‘listening tour’ during the early stages of his presidency. He also acknowledged that Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye had told him that the grade deflation policy might be affecting the admission yield, since the policy has become part of Princeton’s image for applicants.

However, Eisgruber said in response to one of Gibson’s questions that the committee’s formation was not an admission of the policy’s failure.

“It’s an admission that after 10 years of discussing a policy that I think has had two admirable objectives — and moved us in an appropriate direction — we should be thinking about whether or not we can learn anything from the experiences we’ve had,” Eisgruber said in New York.

Eisgruber was not available for comment Monday, according to his assistant, Mary DeLorenzo, who said Eisgruber was in meetings all day before traveling to New York for the alumni event.

In an April interview with The Daily Princetonian immediately following his selection to be the 20th University president, Eisgruber said he supported grade deflation, calling it the “grading fairness policy.”

A committee of nine faculty members has been tasked by Eisgruber to reevaluate Princeton’s grading policies, taking into account student feedback on the policy and the impact it may have on their graduate school and professional school prospects, according to the announcement. Mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Clarence Rowley ’95 will chair the committee.

Princeton goes it alone

The grade deflation policy was put in place in 2004, under the auspices of former Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel, in response to perceived grade inflation in certain courses. When applying to jobs or graduate school, students may attach a letter from the University that explains the grading policy.

After Monday’s announcement, Malkiel said in an interview that she felt the policy had been successful in achieving its objectives of establishing an even-handed grading policy across departments and differentiating between very good and exceptional student work.

“I think the problem with that is that people — students, faculty and others — have not well understood the meaning of the 35 percent. The 35 percent is a guideline; it’s not a quota,” Malkiel said. “I think people have misunderstood the 35 percent as a quota, and that’s gotten a lot of people riled up.”

No peer institutions followed Princeton’s lead in taking institution-wide measures to curb grade inflation.

At the time of the policy’s adoption, University administrators had hoped that peer institutions would follow Princeton’s lead in taking an institution-wide approach to curbing grade deflation, Malkiel said, who said this made her disappointed. She explained that she had been in touch with her counterparts at four different “Ivy-plus” peer institutions — though she declined to identify them — sharing data and reports on the policy with them.

The “Ivy-plus” label refers to the eight schools of the Ivy League as well as Stanford, the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

One of these universities, Yale, launched a committee in Feburary to examine the school’s grading policy. In spring 2012, 62 percent of grades given at Yale fell within the A-range, the grading committee announced.

In response to student protests, Yale administrators agreed last spring to add student representatives to the committee.

Current Dean of the College Valerie Smith, who succeeded Malkiel in July 2011, said in an interview she thought the review of the policy was “definitely timely.”

“I fully support the practice of having a faculty committee review policy, and so I’m open to whatever the committee recommends,” she said Monday.

Smith told The Daily Princetonian in March 2012 that she had no plans to overturn the grading policy and that she agreed with the basic “assumptions” underlying the policy, such as the idea that grades should offer students feedback on the quality of the work they submit in their courses. However, Smith also indicated at the time that she would seek to reframe the campus debate surrounding the grading policy.

“We want to figure out a more effective way of communicating the spirit behind the policy and expanding the conversation around grading and assessment,” Smith said at the time.

While Smith said that students and faculty had discussed their concerns about the grading policy in private conversations with her before, she said on Monday that she did not know where the impetus for policy change had come from.

When asked about the potential consequences of a change in grading policy for students’ post-graduate prospects, Smith said she could not offer any prediction before the committee had looked at the data and made its recommendation about whether to change the policy.

In his charge to the committee, Eisgruber wrote that “concerns persist that the grading policy may have had unintended impacts upon the undergraduate academic experience that are not consistent with our broader educational goals.”

The committee

Rowley, the chair of the committee, said he was approached by Eisgruber last week, and explained that the committee would seek, in the course of its review, to determine whether the objectives that originally motivated the policy were appropriate and, if they were, whether the current policy achieved those objectives in a way that produced “the fewest side effects.”

“We will be looking at every available source of data that we can to determine whether the policy is meeting those objectives and whether it’s the most effective policy to do so,” Rowley said.

After reviewing available data about the effect of the grading policy, the committee will make its recommendations to University faculty, likely in the form of a report, he explained. He said the committee has not yet met and has not yet set internal deadlines for reviewing different aspects of the policy.

“I understand different faculty have different views toward the policy,” Rowley said. “I personally have found it constructive to have a guideline for what one should aim for, but I see as just that, a guideline, not a quota.”

The other members of the committee include economics professor Henry Farber, German professor Devin Fore, molecular biology professor Alison Gammie, English professor William Gleason, classics professor Joshua Katz, computer science professor Brian Kernighan, geosciences professor Bess Ward and sociology professor Robert Wuthnow. Associate Dean of the College Elizabeth Colagiuri will serve on the committee as staff.

Student concerns

Undergraduate Student Government president Shawon Jackson ’15 said he was “very excited” that Eisgruber is taking time to review the grading policy, adding that “it’s important for [Eisgruber] to make sure that we’re doing things as effectively as possible.”

Jackson noted that pursuing a review of the policy had not been one of the USG’s top priorities.

“I think that any reevaluation of the grading policy would have had to come first from the administration,” USG Academics Committee chair Dillon Sharp ’14 explained. “It’s not news to anybody that the students would support the formation of this committee.”

While Jackson said that he could not speak to the specific concerns Eisgruber may be referring to, one unintended consequence of the current policy is confusion over the grading standards.

“One of the biggest concerns that I hear is about whether the purpose of a grade is to see how you’re doing relative to the standards set in the course or to see how you’re doing relative to your peers,” Jackson explained. “For example if the initial standard is set at 90 percent is A-minus but the majority of students in that course get an A-minus , does that mean you curve the grades such that some get a B or B-plus, or does everyone get an A-minus?”

Despite the absence of undergraduate representatives on the committee, Jackson said that he appreciated that Eisgruber expects the committee to consult various constituents of the Princeton community.

“I do hope that the faculty committee will do a survey with students, or hold focus groups or do other sorts of things to figure out what the opinion is, and if the committee decides not to do that — which I don’t foresee happening — then USG will approach the committee to see if we can give student input,” Jackson said.

According to Sharp, one of the biggest unintended byproducts of the policy is its “psychological impact,” which, at times, has been negative.

“The fact of the matter is that not everybody is going to get an A,” Sharp said. “So you have these kids who were incredibly smart in high school — and are still incredibly smart here — who, when being compared to their peers, their intelligence is not necessarily reflected in their grades.”

Additionally, Sharp said that the policy has perhaps shifted the focus of the Princeton experience to grades, which is something that does not necessarily align with the “broader educational goals” of the University to which Eisgruber referred in his charge.

“What you’re learning and what you’re experiencing before you even see your grades — that’s the important part,” Sharp said. “At the end of the day, grades are such a minimal part of the Princeton experience.”

News Editor Patience Haggin, Associate Editor for News Catherine Ku and senior writer Teddy Schleifer contributed reporting for this story.

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