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Wednesday, Oct. 01, 2014

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Faculty approves proposals to establish grading standard

A set of proposals to establish a common grading standard across the University was approved at the April 26 faculty meeting.

At its regular meeting in Nassau Hall, the faculty approved the proposals by the Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing. Intended to assist faculty members in bringing grade inflation under control, the proposals provide clear guidelines for faculty and students about the meaning of letter grades. Following a 90-minute presentation and discussion, the faculty voted 156-84 to approve the proposals.

"It was a thoughtful and extended discussion, and many good points were raised," said Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel, who made the proposals on behalf of the committee. "We will implement these proposals in the most attentive and careful way we can."

The proposals, which were disseminated to faculty members on April 6, call for an expectation that departments and programs will award less than 35 percent A's (A+, A, A-) for undergraduate courses and less than 55 percent A's for junior and senior independent work. These percentages resemble the grading patterns at Princeton in undergraduate courses and independent work from 1987 to 1992.

During the discussion at the April 26 meeting, faculty members expressed support for the proposals as well as concerns regarding the effects on intellectualism and student competition; on smaller departments; and on students as they apply to graduate schools and employers. Many of these issues also were addressed in the documentation distributed with the proposals and in subsequent discussions Malkiel had with faculty and students.

Two amendments to the original proposals were approved at the meeting. One amendment changed the terminology from the word "limit" when referring to the percentages to the word "expectation." The other amendment stipulates that a Committee on Grading, which will be charged with monitoring the proposals with the Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing, will be an elected faculty committee.

"By adopting [these proposals], the faculty will be better able to give students the carefully calibrated assessment they deserve of the quality of their course work and independent work," Malkiel wrote in her original cover memo to the proposals. "The proposed grading standard responds to the desire of the department chairs that all departments be asked to meet common expectations. It responds to the desire of students for evenhandedness in grading across the departments. And it positions Princeton to take national leadership in tackling what has seemed an intractable national problem."

According to data provided by seven other Ivy League institutions, Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago, recent percentages of A grades given in undergraduate courses at these institutions range from about 44 to 55 percent A's. Between those two poles, two institutions fell around 45 to 46 percent, four (including Princeton) between 47 and 48 percent, and three in the 49 to 51 percent range. There is no systematic way of comparing independent work grades.

The proposals grew out of an explicit mandate from the department chairs to develop a grading standard that applies across the institution. Rather than prescribing a set of rules, the Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing advocated a "social compact" in which departments would agree to meet an institutional grading standard and determine how to meet that standard.

With the faculty's approval, the committee will now proceed with implementing the proposals. Each fall, the committee will report to the faculty on the grading record of the previous academic year. All members of the faculty will have access to grading data for all departments and programs, all divisions and the University as a whole.

The committee will review the grading record of the previous year with a Committee on Grading, whose membership will consist of six members of the faculty (one department chair from each division and two other faculty members) elected by the faculty, and (ex officio) the dean of the faculty, the dean of the college and the registrar. In the case of departments or programs that have not adhered to institutional grading expectations, the Committee on Grading will advise the Committee on Examinations and Standing on an appropriate strategy to assure adherence in the future. The standard by which the grading record of a department or program will be evaluated will be the percentage of A's given over the previous three years.

More information is available on the Web by viewing the background documents sent to faculty members and a story in the Princeton Weekly Bulletin .

Contact: Ruth Stevens (609) 258-3601

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