May 30, 2024

Another Form of Grade Inflation

You may recall Princeton’s proposal to fight grade inflation by putting a quota on the number of A’s that can be awarded. Joe Barillari made a brilliant followup proposal in yesterday’s Daily Princetonian, to fight the “problem” of inflation in students’ ratings of their professors’ teaching.

Princeton Proposes Quotas to Control Grade Inflation

Princeton is considering putting a cap on the number of A’s that professors could award to students, as a way of fighting grade inflation. Details are in Alyson Zureick’s story in today’s Daily Princetonian. To my knowledge, Princeton would be the first major university to take such a step. The proposal would have to be approved by a vote of the faculty before taking effect.

Grade inflation is a real problem, and it’s a hard one to fight. There are weak but steady pressures that push grades up over time. A professor, faced with a student on the borderline between two grades, finds it easier to give the higher grade; and at the end of a long semester of hard work by professor and student, it feels right to give that borderline student a tiny nudge upward. Students complain about low grades, and sometimes they can point to a grading error that justifies an upward adjustment; but rarely if ever do they complain about generous grades. These nudges and corrections slowly push the average grade upward.

I also think, notwithstanding the occasional grumbling of old-timers, that our students have gotten more capable over the years. If this is true, then grades naturally inflate, unless we grade the same work more harshly than we did in the past.

In recent years, Princeton’s strategy has been to report comparative statistics, telling each department how its grade distribution compares to others, and telling each professor how his grade distribution compares to his peers. Apparently that strategy has not been enough to stop grade inflation.

The new Princeton proposal would require each department to give no more than 35% A’s (including A+ and A-) in courses. It would be left to each department to decide how to stay under this cap.

I don’t know yet whether I’ll vote for or against this proposal. But I do know that if it passes, my department will have to set some policy for allocating our quota of A’s among our courses. Setting that policy will be no fun at all, even in a department as sane and collegial as mine.

UPDATE (10:45 AM): For more reaction, see today’s Boston Globe story by Marcella Bombardieri.

Princeton Ignores Strauss, Makes Sensible Decisions

The Office of Information Technology (OIT) here at Princeton has taken the unusual step of issuing a statement distancing itself from the views expressed by one of its employees, Howard Strauss, in a column in Syllabus magazine.

(OIT operates the campus network and other shared computing facilities. It is not to be confused with the Computer Science Department, which is the main site of information technology teaching and research at Princeton.)

Mr. Strauss’s column, which really has to be read to be believed, likens open source products to fraudulent Nigerian spam emails.

Fortunately the grownups in charge at OIT responded by reiterating the university’s non-Straussian procurement policy, which is based not on a rigid pro- or anti-open source rule but instead involves – listen carefully, ’cause this might be hard to follow – looking at all of the available products and choosing the best one for the job.

SunnComm's Latest

SunnComm is now taking yet another position regarding Alex Halderman’s paper – that the paper is just “political activism masquerading as research”. (The quote comes from SunnComm president Peter Jacobs, responding to a question from Seth Finkelstein.) Jacobs had expressed the same sentiment earlier, on an investor discussion board, in this vitriolic message, which he apparently tried to retract later.

[I can’t resist pointing out how hilariously wrong Jacobs is when he says that nobody affiliated with the EFF has ever produced any digital content worth selling. There are many counterexamples, starting with the three founders of EFF (Mitch Kapor, John Perry Barlow, and John Gilmore) who all became rich and famous by producing copyrighted works.]

As far as I can tell, what Jacobs is arguing, essentially, is that even though Halderman’s paper does not make any political argument, the paper might affect the public policy debate about DRM. What I don’t understand is why that’s a bad thing. It seems to me that an accurate, truthful research report has more merit, rather than less, if its results are relevant to a public policy debate.

To put it another way, Halderman stands accused of relevance, which can be a dangerous tactic for an academic to follow.

SunnComm Says It Won't Sue Halderman

SunnComm, which had previously said it planned to sue Alex Halderman for publishing a critique of SunnComm’s CD anti-copying technology, has now backed off. According to Josh Brodie’s story in today’s Daily Princetonian, SunnComm president Peter Jacobs has now said the company has changed its mind and will not sue.

SunnComm is to be commended for deciding not to interfere with Alex’s right to speak. I hope SunnComm decides to join the debate now. If SunnComm wants to add anything, or to challenge anything that Alex said in his paper, I for one would like to hear from them.