According to Minding the Campus, Princeton University has made a concerted effort to rid its campus of grade inflation.
“When students get the same grade for outstanding work that they get for good work,” she explained to a New York Times reporter, “they are not motivated to do their best.” There has been a “Lake Wobegon” pattern in grading, Malkiel says, where every student is above average. “This is part of inflationary patterns of evaluation in the larger culture.” A faculty-staff committee she sponsored confirmed such a pattern in Princeton grading in the introduction to a report it filed in 2003: “Who could ever have imagined that we would reach a point [at Princeton] where a student with a straight B average [that is, a 3.0] would rank 923 out of a graduating class of 1079 — or where a student with a straight C average [2.0] would rank 1078?”
Malkiel began her task of fighting grade inflation by first compiling and disseminating to the faculty extensive statistics on the extent to which grades had risen at Princeton since the 1970s. The statistics were striking in what they revealed and it was hoped that by making the degree of grade inflation publically known and exhorting the faculty to lower their grading patterns, progress could be made. Alas, nothing positive came of this strategy, which began in 1998 — grading patterns in the years immediately following this date were no different than they had been in the previous years. This inform-and-mildly-exhort policy failed because many department heads feared that if their individual departments began to grade more strictly others might not necessarily follow and they would have to explain to angry students why they were getting lower grades than elsewhere. What was needed, it was clear, was a well-defined university-wide policy that had the strong backing of the entire faculty and university administration and was accompanied by at least some degree of institutional oversight and pressure to see to it that the different departments complied with the new policy guidelines.
The breakthrough came in April of 2004 when the governing faculty senate approved by a 2-1 margin a proposal by Malkiel to set an “expectation” that A grades should not exceed 35 percent of all grades in undergraduate courses and 55 percent of grades in junior and senior independent work. The expectation was not that every course in every year would conform to the prescribed limit, but that most of the courses in each department over any given three year period would at least come close to these numerical guidelines. To lessen student concerns that the “grade deflation policy” (as students termed it) might hurt Princeton students in their competition with students of other institutions for coveted positions after graduation, the university embarked upon an ambitious publicity program, sending out letters to over 3,000 graduate schools, professional schools, and corporate recruiters explaining Princeton’s more rigorous grading policy. Every transcript sent out from the registrar’s office is also accompanied by an explanation of the new grading policy, and students can download from Princeton’s website copies of the new policy to send along in their applications for summer internships or other programs.
In a least two measurable ways the policy has been a considerable success — perhaps the only success of its kind among major private universities in the U.S. In the three year period before the new grading policy was instituted (2001-2004), 47 percent of the grades at Princeton were in the A range. In the three year period since the implementation of the new policy (2005-2008), 40.4 percent of grades were A range. For this last academic year (ending in the spring of 2009), A range grades fell to 39.7 percent of all grades, the first time grades in this range had comprised less than 40 percent of Princeton’s grades since the early 1990s. The new grading policy was clearly successful in reigning in grade inflation, at least at the high end.
The positives have not quelled student complaint even though the job prospects of Princeton grads seems not to have been harmed by the stricter standards. There some valid student complaints like the loss of collaboration. Read the whole article.