Princeton achieves marked progress in curbing grade inflation

Five years after its inception, Princeton's new grading policy has shown significant progress in bringing grades in undergraduate courses under better control.

In 2008-09, A grades (A+, A, A-) accounted for 39.7 percent of grades in undergraduate courses across the University -- the first time that A grades have fallen below 40 percent since the policy was approved. The results were a marked improvement from 2002-03, when A's accounted for a high of 47.9 percent of all grades.

Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel reported the results at the Sept. 21 faculty meeting. In a statement issued at the meeting, members of the Faculty Committee on Grading called the 2008-09 results "a major milestone in the implementation of the University's new grading policy."

The policy, adopted by the faculty in April 2004 to curb grade inflation across the University, sets an institution-wide expectation for the percentage of grades in the A range and provides clear guidelines on the meaning of letter grades. Grades have been coming down steadily since the policy was established.

"These results confirm once again that with clear intent and concerted effort, a university faculty can bring down the inflated grades that -- left uncontrolled -- devalue the educational achievements of American college students," the committee's statement said. "The Princeton faculty continues to make successful progress in its determined effort to restore educational content and meaning to the letter grades earned by the highest-achieving students in the United States."

The policy sets a common grading standard for every academic department and program, in which A's are to account for less than 35 percent of the grades for undergraduate courses and less than 55 percent of grades for junior and senior independent work. The standard by which the grading record of each department or program is evaluated is the percentage of A's given over the previous three years.

Progress has varied by division, with the social sciences and natural sciences largely holding steady for the last four years. During that period, A grades have ranged from 37.1 to 37.9 percent in the social sciences and from 35.1 to 35.9 percent in the natural sciences.

In the humanities and engineering, where progress has been slower, 2008-09 brought significant gains. A's accounted for 42.5 percent of grades in the humanities last year and 40.6 percent of grades in engineering -- both down two percentage points compared to 2007-08.

In the period from fall 2006 through spring 2009, the most recent three-year period under the new grading policy, A's accounted for 40.1 percent of grades in undergraduate courses, down from 47.0 percent in 2001-04, the three years before the faculty adopted the policy. The 2006-09 results also mark continued progress from those reported a year ago, when A's accounted for 40.4 percent of undergraduate grades in the 2005-08 period.

In humanities departments, A's accounted for 44.1 percent of the grades in undergraduate courses in 2006-09, down from 55.6 percent in 2001-04. In the social sciences, there were 37.7 percent A grades in 2006-09, down from 43.3 percent in 2001-04. In the natural sciences, there were 35.6 percent A grades in 2006-09, compared to 37.2 percent in 2001-04. In engineering, the figures were 41.7 percent A's in 2006-09, down from 50.2 percent in 2001-04.

In its statement, the committee "noted the remarkable success of many departments both in bringing their grades down and in maintaining their gains. But it observed also that there continues to be more variation among departments than the policy anticipates. The committee will be working closely with departments that are still having some difficulty in controlling their grades to devise specific strategies for turning these situations around."

Overall, the committee reiterated its "confidence in the educational benefits of the faculty's successful effort to bring grades under better control." The committee also noted that efforts to bring grades under control have not hindered Princeton students in terms of finding jobs or getting into graduate and professional schools. Detailed data about employment and postgraduate admissions will be distributed to all faculty, undergraduates and undergraduate parents later this month in a pamphlet titled "Grading at Princeton: Frequently Asked Questions."