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Malkiel reports on steps taken to implement new grading policy

By Ruth Stevens

Princeton NJ -- Following faculty approval in April, University officials began working over the summer to implement a new policy to establish a common grading standard across all departments and programs.

Reporting on the process at the Sept. 27 meeting of the Council of the Princeton University Community, Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel noted that the new policy mirrors grading standards at the University as recent as the early 1990s and that one-quarter of the departments already meet the standard.

Grading Definitions

A+   Exceptional; significantly exceeds the highest expectations for undergraduate work.

A   Outstanding; meets the highest standards for the assignment or course.

A-   Excellent; meets very high standards for the assignment or course.

B+   Very good; meets high standards for the assignment or course.

B   Good; meets most of the standards for the assignment or course.

B-   More than adequate; shows some reasonable command of the material.

C+   Acceptable; meets basic standards for the assignment or course.

C   Acceptable; meets some of the basic standards for the assignment or course.

C-   Acceptable, while falling short of meeting basic standards in several ways.

D   Minimally acceptable; lowest passing grade.

F   Failing; very poor performance.

“Do we think there’s a high probability that this [policy] is reasonable, sensible and achievable?” she said. “We think so.”

The policy, intended to assist faculty members in bringing grade inflation under control, sets an institution-wide expectation for the percentage of grades in the A range (A+, A, A-): In undergraduate courses, A’s should now account for less than 35 percent of the grades given in each department or program; for junior and senior independent work, the expectation is that less than 55 percent will be A’s.

These percentages resemble the grading patterns at Princeton in undergraduate courses and independent work from the 1970s through the early 1990s. More recent percentages of A grades given in undergraduate courses at highly selective institutions, including Princeton, fall in the 44 to 55 percent range.

In addition to speaking at the CPUC meeting, Malkiel sent an e-mail message to undergraduates on Sept. 23 regarding the policy, and invited them to attend an open meeting with her from 8 to 9:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 4, in McCosh 10.

“It’s important to emphasize that we are NOT telling the faculty to fail to give an A to a student who deserves it,” she wrote in the e-mail. “Students who are doing outstanding academic work need to receive A’s. The policy does suggest, however, that the faculty can be more discriminating in the way they grade.”

She spelled out for the students the advantages of the new policy. “We expect the new grading policy to benefit you by giving you more carefully calibrated assessments of the quality of your course work and independent work. (In the old system, when most students got the same grades, no matter whether their work was good, very good or excellent, it was not very informative — and it did not encourage students to stretch to do the best work of which they were capable.) Grading the same way in all departments is fairer to you, and it removes the incentive or disincentive to choose courses or concentrations on the basis of different grading practices in different departments.”

Continued communication

The new grading policy grew out of an explicit mandate from the department chairs to develop a standard that applies across the institution. Malkiel said that the most important work of implementation is currently taking place in departments and programs, where faculty members are deciding how to meet the new grading expectations.

Early this fall, she sent each department and program a report on its grading record last year, putting it into historical context. She also sent a recapitulation of the new policy and the clarified definitions of the meaning of letter grades. (See below. The definitions also appear on page 38 of the new Undergraduate Announcement or online at <www.princeton.edu/~odoc/grading_info.htm>. Other documents pertaining to this issue also are online at <www.princeton.edu/~odoc/>; click on “Information about new grading policies.”)

“I asked the department chairs to get to work on the business of deliberating with their faculty about how the particular department would proceed to meet the expectations,” she said. “I offered to be of help, and I have had a number of conversations with individual chairs.”

Also as part of the implementation, Malkiel has been communicating with internal and external constituencies about the policy. Over the summer, she wrote a column in the Princeton Parents News explaining what the policy is, why it is being implemented and what the impact will be on students. The column is available online at <www.princeton.edu/~odoc/PPN_NM.pdf>.

Malkiel also intends to write to every graduate and professional school and to each employer she can identify to explain the policy. In the e-mail, she invited students to provide her with advice on what to include in this message and with the names of employers or graduate and professional schools of which she might not be aware.

“I believe that the new grading policy will actually work to your advantage,” she wrote in the e-mail to the students, “since Princeton will now be seen as taking national leadership in tackling grade inflation, which has seemed up to this point to be an intractable national problem. The employers and admission deans I talked to last year said that if we make plain what the new grading policy entails, they will recalibrate to take account of changes in our grading practices. They told me, too, that the fact that Princeton grades will be seen as real grades, in contrast to the inflated grades of most of our peer institutions, will be likely to redound to the benefit of Princeton students.”

Malkiel plans to draft a statement explaining the new policy that will accompany all Princeton transcripts. The statement also will be available online so that students can download it and forward it to prospective employers.

Finally, Malkiel discussed a new informational tool being made available to students concerning their grades. On Sept. 20, Registrar Joseph Greenberg sent undergraduates an e-mail informing them that the faculty has elected to add a quintile rank to student academic records.

After each semester, students in each class will be sorted into five groups according to grade point average. Students will be able to view their quintile rank on the “My Academic Record” page of the registrar’s Web site. The information is confidential and will not be released externally. Internally, it will be available only to academic deans, directors of studies and registrar staff.

Malkiel said the ranking will allow students to understand their own GPA in the context of the GPA’s of their classmates. “It’s meant for you, privately, to give you some more information about how to interpret the overall strength of your academic performance,” she wrote to the students.

The reaction to Malkiel’s presentation at the CPUC meeting included questions and suggestions on ways of making external constituencies aware of the new policy. “I welcome your advice,” she said.

After the Oct. 4 meeting with students, she plans to communicate with faculty about what is on students’ minds as the new policy is implemented and how those issues might be addressed.

Looking ahead

Much of the implementation of the new policy will take place over an extended period of time. The Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing will continue its recent practice of reporting annually to the faculty on the grading record of the previous academic year. Beginning next fall, all members of the faculty will have access to grading data for all departments and programs, as well as all divisions and the University as a whole.

The committee will review the grading record of the previous year with a new Committee on Grading, which soon will be formed and 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.

“We’re going to look at grading patterns over a three-year period,” Malkiel said. “That will allow for yearly variations in course offerings, the quality of student performance in courses and the quality of independent work.”

Asked at the CPUC meeting if any other institutions were following Princeton’s lead on this issue, Malkiel said that several have indicated their support and are waiting to see how the University goes about implementation.

“We shouldn’t expect our peer institutions to do something right away — you can’t underestimate how long and slow a process it is to work through a university faculty to address issues like this,” she said. “But other institutions can no longer say that everybody has grade inflation and we can’t do anything about it.”