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End of grade deflation could be implemented as early as this fall

Recommendations from the grading policy report released on Tuesday could go into place as early as the upcoming fall term, said University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83, who is supportive of bringing end to grade deflation.

“I think it’s really important that Princeton be known for the quality of its teaching rather than for the severity of its curve,” Eisgruber said.

The report, written by an ad hoc committee commissioned by Eisgruber to examine the grading policy implemented in 2005, urged that the quota for A-range grades of 35 percent be dropped and that emphasis be placed on providing meaningful feedback to students.

Eisgruber explained that he will ask the Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing to discuss the report at its first meeting in September. If the committee approves the report, it could bring the report to a faculty vote in October, at the first faculty meeting.

He said that findings in the report, such as the low approval rate of the current grading policy as well as the drop in average GPA and percentage of A’s happening primarily before the policy was put into place, did not surprise him.

“My view about this is that the report says, ‘OK, we tried something with the numerical targets, it did not work in the way that we hoped that it would work, we learned something from it,’ ” Eisgruber said. “And the right emphasis is going to be on departmental rubrics and standards.”

He noted that two important takeaways from the report were a recognition of each department’s responsibility to develop thorough rubrics and standards, and a shift away from numerical targets for grading.

When Eisgruber first commissioned the report, he had cited research suggesting that the grade deflation policy could have an adverse impact on students’ post-graduate opportunities. While the committee’s report found that there was no such effect, Eisgruber said that the analysis was balanced, thoughtful and persuasive.

“The committee, I think, did a better kind of research than that article did,” Eisgruber said. “This committee actually went out and investigated how, in fact, Princeton students had fared in the markets.”

Professors interviewed after the release of the report thought that the recommendations were a step in the right direction, but they did recognize that the spirit that led to the creation of the grade deflation policy was the right one.

“I think it was a good thing to push people to think about their grading,” history professor Anthony Grafton said. “On the other hand, I think it was really wrong to assume that each department could give grades the same way.”

They acknowledged that the energy behind the policy had been lost with the departure of former Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel who had held the position for decades and had been instrumental in formulating it. She declined to comment.

“There’s apparently no one to advocate for the policy anymore,“ Wilson School professor Stanley Katz said, describing the policy as “wildly” unpopular. “There’s always inevitably a lot of disagreement among departmental faculty, and basically professors want to be left to their own devices when it comes to grading, and my guess is that we go back to a completely unregulated system — which will mean, in the humanities, grade inflation.

The report showed that engineering students had been the most affected by the policy, both because grades had been deflated across the board and because the lower-level physics and math classes required of them were among the classes most affected by grade deflation.

Dean of the engineering school H. Vincent Poor deferred comment to Associate Dean Peter Bogucki, who oversees undergraduate affairs. Bogucki declined to comment, saying that he had yet to read the report in detail.

Dean of the Wilson School Cecelia Rouse called the report “super thorough” and praised its call for more meaningful feedback.

“I think it’s wonderful to examine this because it’s critical to the mission of Princeton and to an educational institution to have a robust and rigorous way in which students are given feedback, and that’s what a grade is meant to be,” she said.

Rouse said she was looking forward to the “vigorous debate” that would take place amongst faculty once the report was reviewed and presented.

The report recommended transferring the task of devising new grading standards to the newly formed Faculty Council on Teaching and Learning, which is headed by economics professor Harvey Rosen. Rosen declined to comment, saying that the committee had yet to meet.

While Princeton is in the direction of repealing the numerical targets of grade deflation, Grafton said he would not like to return to the old days.

“I hope we don’t drift upwards, toward a Harvard-like system in some departments,” he added.

With regards to student response, USG president Shawon Jackson ’15 said that he appreciated that the committee reached out to USG while writing the report.

“I was pleased with the fact that they considered many implications and presented a nuanced perspective [in the report],” he said. “In my conversations with students, students support academic excellence, but they don’t support quotas or changing how students are graded based on how other students in the class perform. I think a lot of students will be happy with the committee’s recommendations.”

Staff Writers Ruby Shao and Durva Trivedi contributed reporting.

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