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After faculty vote, grade deflation policy officially dead


Ten years after the University first adopted a grade deflation policy, faculty members voted on Monday to reverse the policy and allow each department to determine its own grading standards. The repeal of the policy is effective immediately.

The Faculty Committee on Grading, which was established to monitor the policy, was also dissolved at the meeting.

The now-former grading policy recommended that no University department should give more than 35 percent A-grades overall and was spearheaded by then-Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel to curb a perceived long-term trend of rising grades. University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 convened an ad hoc committee last year to review the policy; the committee’s conclusions encouraged the repeal of the policy.

“The ad hoc committee believes that the concept of consistent standards has been interpreted primarily to mean consistent grades,” Dean of the College and chair of the Committee on Grading Valerie Smith said at the meeting on Monday. “Meaningful standards should be course and discipline-specific.”

A copy of a draft of the new policy obtained by The Daily Princetonian specifies that the faculty shall use grades and substantive feedback based on well-designed, meaningful grading standards within each department and program. The policy also states that the Faculty Committee on Examination and Standing will periodically review these standards and report to faculty on the grading record of the previous academic year each fall.

In addition, the committee will ensure that assessment standards are consistent and will communicate with individual departments and programs as necessary.

University spokesperson Martin Mbugua confirmed that Monday’s meeting approved changes to the policy, including replacing the old numerical targets with grading standards developed by each department.

Several faculty members said they supported the suggested changes to the grading policy because the former guidelines affected students’ willingness to take risks in their course selection, damaged the collegiate atmosphere and discouraged students from applying to the University. Professors also noted that individual departments should be trusted to make their own grading decisions.

Ecology and evolutionary biology professor Lars Hedin said that what he liked about the former policy is that it prevented students from choosing departments and courses based on the prevalence of certain grades.

“What I would like to see is our students falling in love with a question or a field, as opposed to trying to go for the most optimal grading benefit, ” Hedin said.

Sociology professor Patricia Fernandez-Kelly said she agrees that A-grades should be scarce, but that certain students at the University tend to expect higher grades based on their own judgements.

“Their enthusiasm leads them to believe that they deserve a better grade,” Fernandez-Kelly said after the meeting. She added that she believes the allocation of A-grades in her department will continue to lie around 35 percent.

“It’s statistically what you would expect if rigorous criteria are applied,” Fernandez-Kelly said. “I think the departments will now have the opportunity to mediate and really consider standards rather than grade quotas.”

Two professors said they supported the notion of including the percentage of students who performed better or worse than a given student on the student’s transcript for each class, thus discouraging grade inflation and providing a more accurate measurement of a student’s comparative performance.

Although the ad hoc committee considered this option, it decided against it because it believed this could potentially cause additional anxiety to students, committee head and mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Clarence Rowley said.

“If you’re a student who is in the bottom quintile, maybe a first generation college student, it’s a bit disheartening to see that information right there in front of you,” Rowley said, adding that University students are especially accomplished and perhaps intimidating.

The policy describes an A-grade as meeting the highest standards for an assignment or course, while a B-grade is described as meeting most of the assignment or course requirements, distinctions that psychology professor Susan Sugarman said could be made more specific. She also noted that “any grade in the B-range is really very good,” and that perhaps the current description should be amended.

Smith said her office will work with departments and programs to produce effective grading standards, and that grading results in each program and department will be reviewed every fall in a report.

According to the report that prompted Monday’s vote, only 5 percent of students and 6 percent of faculty deemed the policy effective in maintaining fair and consistent grading standards, according to the committee’s report on grade deflation released in August.

At the time of the policy’s implementation, no peer institutions followed the University’s lead in taking institution-wide measures to curb grade inflation, prompting criticism that the policy could hurt students when applying for positions post-graduation. Although the report requested by Eisgruber did not find evidence to back this claim, it noted that numerical targets for grades were often misrepresented as quotas rather than guidelines, causing additional stress for students. The report also said the policy could have affected applications from prospective students.

In addition, the report found that the average GPA and fraction of A-grades dropped dramatically right before the policy was implemented, but that both grade measures have increased since.

The number of A-range grades increased from 40 to 43 percent in the last three years, but is still lower than the 47 percent of A-range grades reported in 2001-04, the period right before the current grade deflation policy was enacted.

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