A Princeton faculty committee recommended yesterday that the university rescind its ten-year-old grading guideline that advises faculty to assign grades in the A range to at most 35% of students. The committee issued a report explaining its rationale. The recommendation will probably be accepted and implemented.
It’s a good report, and I agree with its recommendation. Princeton would be better off without its grading quota.
Before explaining why, it’s worth defusing some of the likely responses. Many commentators seem to presuppose that the distribution of grades is too high—but whether that is true is part of the debate. Similarly, many commentators assume that today’s students perform no better than students in the past, even though what evidence there is tends to point toward today’s students being better. Like many debates about academia, this one tends to be short on data, and people’s positions tend to be driven more by emotional and political predisposition than fact-based reasoning.
As an example, it is widely asserted without data that the rise in average grades is a relatively recent development, usually tied to some cultural trend that the speaker dislikes. But the available information seems to show that grades have been rising for a long time. The best data I have seen on this is in Harry Lewis’s book, Excellence Without a Soul, which shows that grades at Harvard have been increasing slowly and steadily since at least the 1930’s and probably longer.
Princeton’s recent experience, as recounted in the new faculty committee report, adds a new data point to the debate. The current policy, which is officially a “guideline” of 35% A’s rather than a formal quota, went into effect in 2005. And the data show that grades declined noticeably in the period from 2002 to 2004. After the policy went into effect in 2005, grades were flat for a few years and then started rising again. So what changed grading practices was not the 35% guideline but the simple fact that faculty were discussing and thinking more deeply about grading policy during the period before the current policy was even a concrete proposal. The policy that worked was “grade mindfully”, not “give 35% A’s”.
Part of the problem with the current policy is that there isn’t a clearly stated theory of how it is supposed to operate. Partly this is because some of the policy’s most vocal advocates have tried to avoid admitting that in order to succeed the policy would have to give some students a B even if the faculty instructor thought they deserved an A. I once heard a sub-dean say that faculty weren’t supposed to change individual students’ grades; they were only supposed to lower the average grade. But of course you can’t lower the average without lowering some individuals. And if the goal is to get faculty to give different grades than they would give on their own, then the policy cannot succeed without changing some faculty grading decisions. The policy was a voluntary guideline rather than a quota—and some faculty chose to ignore it entirely—but still, if the policy was to have any effect at all, this could only occur by getting faculty to change some A’s to B’s.
This tension is exposed in yesterday’s report, where the following story told by a student is described as “reveal[ing] poor behavior on the part of the faculty”:
I received a 91 on a midterm exam in a [particular department] course this past fall (my concentration [i.e., major]), but the 91 was scratched out and replaced with an 88. When I asked my professor why he reduced my score, he told me that normally the paper would be an A-, but due to grade deflation, he was forced to lower several students’ grades to a B+.
This kind of thing—changing an A- to a B+—had to happen if the policy was going to succeed. So one suspects that the professor’s “poor behavior” here was not changing the grade, but telling the student what was really going on.
The report’s bottom line on the current policy is the same as mine: the policy’s goal of making grading more thoughtful and consistent was a good one, but the policy was not effective in achieving that goal. Now, I hope, we can learn from experience and kick off a new discussion of what grades are for and how we should assign them.