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A-grades decreased the most before deflation and have increased since, committee finds

Princeton committee recommends end of grade deflation era

Following decades of rampant grade inflation, the average GPA and fraction of A-grades given dropped dramatically from 2003-05 — the years right before the current grading policy was implemented — according to a report released by the University on Tuesday morning.

The report, which was prepared at the request of University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 after only a few months in office, suggests that the controversial grade deflation policy has had little direct effect on grading. Implementation began in the fall of 2005 at a time when A-grades and GPA averages had decreased significantly already, only to increase unabated soon after the policy was put in practice, the report noted.

The grade deflation policy — which states that no department should give more than 35 percent A-grades overall — has been widely criticized since its inception. At the time it was approved, it was thought that the policy would curb grade inflation and other colleges would follow suit.

Impact was most substantial in engineering departments, which have “significantly” lowered the fraction of A-grades across all its courses, the report said. Most other departments present a general disparity in grading averages between introductory and upper-level courses. While many departments score less than 35 percent A-grades in 100 or 200 level courses, no departments do so in 300 or 400 level courses. Introductory mathematics and physics courses are notorious for their low number of A-grades at the introductory level, the report said, but have very high number of of A-grades in upper-level courses.

“Ironically, many of the students taking the introductory mathematics and physics courses are in fact Engineering students, so these students get hit twice,” the report read.

All members of the committee declined or did not respond to a request for comment. University spokesperson Martin Mbugua said that Eisgruber would not comment until October, when the report is expected to be passed onto the faculty at large for voting. He said the report was only a recommendation.

The announcement came at a time when school is not in session and no press release was sent through the University’s usual channels announcing the report. A press release was sent later in the day pitching newly released research about sheep and resistance to parasites.

Meanwhile, Harvard and Yale have continued to face public criticism for their high percentage of A-grades. At Yale, 62 percent of grades were in the A-range in the Spring of 2012. Yale currently has a committee reviewing the possibility of implementing a grade deflation policy.

“What this says is that the University has decided that the new grading policy was a failure, and is searching around for something else to do,” Wilson School professor Stanley Katz said.

The committee’s survey to undergraduates and faculty showed that only five percent of students and six percent of faculty found the current policy to be effective in maintaining fair and consistent grading standards.

The report showed that GPA and A-grades had risen steadily from 1975-2003, reaching a high of 3.38 and 47.9 percent respectively. In the years since the policy has been put into place, the fraction of A-range grades has decreased in percentage, remaining in the low 40s, while B-range grades have increased into the high 40s. C-range grades have remained steady around 10 percent.

Included in the report were graphs detailing how grade changes have fluctuated by department. The Slavic languages department was the only outlier, having a disproportionate percentage of A-grades in both lower and upper level courses, reaching a high of more than 70 percent and a low close to 60. No exact figures were released.

Slavic languages chair Michael Wachtel noted that the percentage of A’s given in his department went down considerably once the grading policy was put into place.

“I suspect what we’re seeing is that when Nancy Malkiel stepped down as dean, I think in our department, there were a certain number of people who decided that that meant that the grading policy could be immediately jettisoned,” he said in response to the report’s findings that the Slavic department gave out roughly 70 percent A’s in the past two years.

Malkiel was Dean of the College in 2005 and was a big proponent of the grade deflation policy. She declined to comment on the report.

Wachtel said that he did not foresee a huge change in his department’s grading practices since most classes have a small number of students and are not as strictly bound to the grading policies as larger, introductory courses in other departments.

The report also argued that the numerical targets for grades were often misrepresented as quotas rather than guidelines and added a layer of stress to students. In addition, the report also acknowledged that the policy could have given prospective students pause about the University. The report did not find that the grade deflation policy had had any impact on students’ post-graduation plans.

The report also discussed the effects of the grade deflation policy on the possibility of Princeton students to attain top fellowships such as the Marshall or Rhodes scholarships. The report cited that administrators expressed that there was “correlation” between high grades at Harvard and their higher number of students winning scholarships.

However, Elliot Gerson, American Secretary to the Rhodes Trust who was consulted by the committee, said in an interview that the Trust was aware of Princeton’s particular grading policies and took them into consideration, noting that the value of a transcript has decreased over the years because of widespread grade inflation elsewhere.

“I have never heard a Princeton applicant directly express concern or anxiety whether Princeton’s grading standards would affect his her chances but we certainly did have questions from Princeton administrators whether this would be a problem,” he said.

The freshman year experience was also evaluated by the committee. The report stated that the average freshman GPA is 3.24, significantly lower than the average for the school as a whole, which stands at around 3.32. No exact figure was released for the overall GPA.

“The committee was surprised to learn that students at other schools (e.g., Harvard, Stanford and Yale) use our grading policy to recruit against us,” the report read.

The Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing will now review the report. If this committee approves of the recommendations, it will bring them to the faculty for a vote, probably in October.

New policies to replace grade deflation would entail, each department to come up with its own grading standards, although grades will still be monitored by the Office of the Dean of the College. Overall, the report suggested dissolving the Standing Faculty Committee on Grading and instead charging the newly formed Faculty Council on Teaching and Learning, which had previously focused on online initiatives such as Coursera, with devising new feedback-based grading policies.

Staff Writer Ruby Shao and Editor-in-Chief Marcelo Rochabrun contributed reporting

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