A Fresh Look at Grading

Sept. 12, 2014

Published in the Sept. 17, 2014, issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly

Last October, at an alumni dinner in Seoul, South Korea, the first question I received was about Princeton’s undergraduate grading policy. I remarked that if you had told me when the policy was adopted that, nearly a decade later, I would be meeting with alumni almost 7,000 miles from campus and grading would be the first topic of discussion, I would not have believed it.

The goal of Princeton’s grading policy is to provide students with meaningful feedback on their performance in courses and independent work. (Photo by Denise Applewhite)

I was among the faculty members who in April 2004 voted to approve the policy, which established institutionwide expectations for percentages of grades in the A range. I believed that Princeton needed to make a strong stand against grade inflation. After taking office as provost three months later, I continued to support the policy because I felt it would help students receive clear feedback on their academic work and because I was concerned about grading disparities across departments.

I admire the efforts of my predecessor, Shirley M. Tilghman, and former Dean of the College Nancy Weiss Malkiel to tackle a challenge that had vexed leaders throughout higher education for a generation. Grades at Princeton, and elsewhere, had been rising since the early 1990s. Variations in student assessments across departments and disciplines appeared troubling. President Tilghman and Dean Malkiel rightly recognized that grade inflation was a serious issue and worked diligently with departments to address the problem in the years prior to the creation of the new grading policy.

As I considered the grading policy upon assuming the presidency last year, I reflected on two factors that I, along with others in our administration and faculty, had not anticipated. First, almost 10 years after its enactment, the policy remained a lightning rod of controversy and a considerable source of stress for many students, parents, alumni, and faculty members. And, regrettably, none of our immediate peer institutions followed our example in taking tough measures to address grade inflation. As a result, Princeton, which ought to be renowned for the unsurpassed quality of its teaching, was attracting more attention for the severity of its curve.

These unforeseen circumstances, combined with the general precept that major policies deserve periodic reexamination, led me to ask a faculty committee to review Princeton’s policies regarding academic assessment and grading. I charged the committee with examining two critical questions: Did we have the right pedagogical goals in mind in establishing the grading policy? And did we take the best steps to achieve them?

The committee — ably chaired by Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Clarence Rowley ’95 and consisting of some of our finest scholars and teachers — issued its report last month. The committee confirmed that the overarching goals of the grading policy were sound. It is imperative that faculty members provide students with clear and consistent feedback on the quality of their academic work. However, in exploring the second question I posed, the committee found that the policy’s emphasis on grading targets should be reconsidered. Those expectations were too often misinterpreted as quotas, which obscured the goals of the policy and created confusion and anxiety.

Through its rigorous evaluation of data and thorough assessment of feedback from a wide range of Princetonians, the committee made some notable findings. Grades at Princeton actually started coming down a year before the policy was adopted and grading targets were established, due to President Tilghman and Dean Malkiel’s work with our academic departments to develop more consistent grading standards in reaction to grade inflation. The committee also found no evidence that the grading policy hindered Princeton students’ competitiveness in seeking postgraduate employment, fellowships, or admission to graduate or professional programs, despite considerable consternation about the policy’s impact on students’ futures. Perceptions of the policy, however, have been a very real source of stress for students, which concerned the committee.

The committee accordingly recommended that we eliminate numerical targets for grades and that each department develop and articulate its own set of qualitative grading standards. This approach emphasizes that clearly stated evaluative criteria and meaningful feedback, not inflexible numerical categories, are the keys to a pedagogically optimal grading system.

I strongly support the recommendations made by the committee, and I am grateful to its members for their hard work and their thoughtful evaluation of this truly vital issue. The recommendations are now in the hands of the faculty for review and approval. I fully expect that there will be vigorous debate about our approaches to assessing student work, because I know that our faculty members care deeply about the welfare and the education of our students. Even while expressing divergent views on the current grading policy, our dedicated teachers have been conscientious in following its guidelines. And I am confident that no matter what shape our grading policies take, our faculty members will continue to work diligently to uphold Princeton’s mission to provide undergraduates with the finest liberal arts education in the world.