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Princeton Grading: Departments

Sparked by our conversation about grade inflation at Williams, I will be reviewing different aspects of Princeton’s grading policy at noon each day this week.

From the Princeton FAQ (pdf):

Why have we made the departments responsible for implementing the policy?

We aspire to have students graded the same way in each department, so that there is no advantage or disadvantage to studying in a particular field. But the departments have different mixes of courses and course enrollments and different challenges and opportunities for implementing the grading policy. We leave to each department to determine how to meet the common institutional grading standard, taking into account the range, size, and level of the department’s courses. We’re not asking that every faculty member grade the same way, or that every course have the same grade distribution. Departments are in the best position to know what approach makes sense for their faculty and their courses; the grading policy vests 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.

Assigning responsibility at the department level was smart. Why? Because every school has professors like our own Derek Catsam ’93:

Oh: and I’m curious what tenured professors at Princeton who oppose this policy are doing. Because grading fits smack dab in the center of academic freedom, and as a tenured professor my answer would be something like this: “That’s a nice idea. Good luck with it. I’m going to grade how I see fit. And here’s my contract, my tenure letter, the number of the American Association of University Professors, the number of the President of the Faculty Senate, and the number of the chair of faculty affairs if you have any questions. Have a nice day.”

The best way to deal with prickly professors like Derek is to make the department the unit of measurement. Derek may be willing to tell off the central administration, but doing the same to his department chair — and his department colleagues — is much harder. Those are the folks that he needs to work closely with for decades. He needs to get along and compromise with them. He needs favors from them, at least occasionally.

Williams should also measure/fight grade inflation primarily at the department level.

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Princeton Grading: Student Quality

Sparked by our conversation about grade inflation at Williams, I will be reviewing different aspects of Princeton’s grading policy at noon each day this week.

On student quality:

Aren’t Princeton students better than ever before? Shouldn’t they get more A’s than ever before?

There is a strong temptation to argue that undergraduates today come to college better prepared academically than any previous generations of Princetonians—and, therefore, deserve more A’s. It is certainly tougher than ever before to gain admission to Princeton, but more intense competition does not necessarily mean abler students.
It’s true that the proportion of Academic 1’s and 2’s in the student body has grown over time, but one needs to be cautious about over-interpreting academic ratings. Those ratings are made up of three components: high school grades, rank in class, and SAT scores. As for high school grades, grade inflation is as much a high school phenomenon as it is a college phenomenon. Rank in class is increasingly problematic as a useful measure; in many high schools, there are many students who stand first in the class, for example, and many high schools now decline to provide class rank at all. And SAT scores do not in themselves sustain the argument that current undergraduates are more qualified than previous generations of Princetonians. Moreover, Princeton attracts such excellent students that the difference between a 1 and a 2, or a 2 and a 3, is actually very small.

Suppose, though, that we concede the argument—suppose today’s undergraduates really are more accomplished academically when they matriculate at Princeton. If that’s the case, then the faculty has a responsibility to hold them to higher standards—that is, to expect more of them and stretch them further academically than we have stretched previous generations. And even the best qualified students don’t do their best work on every assignment in every course; the point of the grading policy is that they shouldn’t be getting the same grades for their ordinary work as they get for their best work.

Indeed.

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Princeton Grading: Post-Grad Effects

Sparked by our conversation about grade inflation at Williams, I will be reviewing different aspects of Princeton’s grading policy at noon each day this week.

The major concern expressed by students and others against a policy of stopping and reversing grade inflation is that it hurts students in the competition for post-graduation opportunities. Lower grades at Princeton, on average, means less success for Princeton students (even though they are just as smart and work just as hard as, say, Yale/Harvard students) in applying to medical/law/business schools, fellowship awards and private sector companies. Princeton addresses these concerned in detail:

What’s happening to the fortunes of Princeton students in the job market and in admission to graduate and professional schools?

Based on the record thus far, we can report with a high degree of confidence that Princeton students are not being disadvantaged by the new grading policy.

… [Endless details]

We will, of course, continue in the years to come to track carefully the fortunes of Princetonians in the various external marketplaces in which they compete for jobs and graduate and professional school admissions. At present, with all caveats taken into account, and all limits in the data acknowledged, we find that Princeton undergraduates continue to be highly successful, as they were before the grading policy was instituted.

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Princeton Grading: Purpose

Sparked by our conversation about grade inflation at Williams, I will be reviewing different aspects of Princeton’s grading policy at noon each day this week.

The purpose of the grading at Princeton:

Princeton established a University-wide grading policy five years ago for two reasons.

The first is that we wanted grading to be done fairly, so that students in one academic department could expect to be graded according to the same standards as students in any other academic department. Before we adopted the grading policy, there was wide variation in grading standards among departments. In general, students in humanities departments were being graded more leniently than students in social science departments; students in engineering were being graded more leniently than students in the natural sciences. We thought that wasn’t fair, and we set about to fix it. The second reason for the adoption of the grading policy is that we thought students deserved clear signals from their teachers about the difference between their ordinarily good and their very best work. With grade inflation and grade compression, that differentiation wasn’t happening. We thought that we had a responsibility as educators to use grades to give students better information about the quality and effectiveness of their work.

Aren’t both equally true at Williams?

I would add that Williams (and Princeton) have an obligation, not just to their students, but to the outside world, to fairly and accurately represent student accomplishment. A transcript and the grades which it contains should be meaningful. Committees for company hiring, law school admissions, and fellowship awards should be able to look at a transcript and draw accurate conclusions about how well a student has done, relative to her peers, at Williams.

There is no doubt that this makes some students worse off. If you are the laziest, stupidest student at Williams, with a transcript filled with Cs and Ds, then you would be better off with a policy that awarded everyone an A no matter how lousy their work. Similarly, the more accurate and meaningful a transcript is, the better off the very best students are. Less grade inflation/compression (probably) leads to more Harvard Medical School admissions, Rhodes Scholarships and Goldman Sachs jobs offers.

I prefer a policy which benefits the best students at Williams even if it, slightly, hurts the worst. What do you prefer? See below the break for more details from Princeton:
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Princeton Grading: Background

Sparked by our conversation about grade inflation at Williams, I will be reviewing different aspects of Princeton’s grading policy at noon each day this week.

Let’s start with this background from the New York Times.

Type-A-Plus Students Chafe at Grade Deflation

When Princeton University set out six years ago to corral galloping grade inflation by putting a lid on A’s, many in academia lauded it for taking a stand on a national problem and predicted that others would follow.

But the idea never took hold beyond Princeton’s walls, and so its bold vision is now running into fierce resistance from the school’s Type-A-plus student body.

With the job market not what it once was, even for Ivy Leaguers, Princetonians are complaining that the campaign against bulked-up G.P.A.’s may be coming at their expense.

“The nightmare scenario, if you will, is that you apply with a 3.5 from Princeton and someone just as smart as you applies with a 3.8 from Yale,” said Daniel E. Rauch, a senior from Millburn, N.J.

The percentage of Princeton grades in the A range dipped below 40 percent last year, down from nearly 50 percent when the policy was adopted in 2004. The class of 2009 had a mean grade-point average of 3.39, compared with 3.46 for the class of 2003.

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