Faculty committee recommends modifications in Princeton assessment and grading policies

An ad hoc faculty committee that President Christopher L. Eisgruber appointed last fall to review the undergraduate grading policy that Princeton University adopted in 2004 has recommended that the University remove numerical targets from the policy and that the numerical guidelines be replaced with grading standards developed and articulated by each department. 

In a report to Eisgruber, the nine faculty members who served on the committee found that numerical targets "are too often misinterpreted as quotas" and that they "add a large element of stress to students' lives, making them feel as though they are competing for a limited resource of A grades." The committee suggested that the dean of the college continue to monitor grades across departments and that departments regularly review their grading history to ensure consistency with the standards they adopt.  

"We suggest that this sort of continuing conversation is a more effective and positive way of having an appropriate grading policy, and with fewer undesirable side effects, than setting numerical targets," they wrote. The committee's report is available on the University website (PDF). 

The committee further recommended that the emphasis of the University's policies regarding assessment of student work should move away from "grades," and instead focus on "quality of feedback." The committee recommends dissolving the standing faculty committee on grading and charging the newly formed Council on Teaching and Learning "with advancing efforts to improve quality of feedback." 

Eisgruber expressed his appreciation to the committee for "a very thoughtful review of our policies, an excellent report and a set of recommendations that I fully support. I agree with the committee that it is important to give students meaningful feedback and clear signals about the quality of their work, and that the numerical targets in our current policy were undermining our goals rather than advancing them. I am asking the Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing, which has jurisdiction in this area, to review the ad hoc committee's report, and if it concurs in the recommendations to bring them to the faculty for action, probably in October." 

In reviewing the recent history of grading at Princeton, the ad hoc committee found that grades began to decline a year before the grading policy was enacted, largely in response to greater awareness of grading issues among the faculty. 

In reviewing the goals of the current policy, it suggested that the goal of maintaining "fair and consistent" grading standards across departments is not appropriate. "It seems to us less important that the same percentage of students in every department receive A-range grades — the current implication of the 'consistent standards' objective — than that there be a high correlation between the grades students receive and the evaluative rubrics in the specific courses they take. Thus we have come to feel strongly that departments should spend their time developing clear and meaningful evaluative rubrics for work within their disciplines rather than aligning grades to meet specific numerical targets. ... Our view is that grades within departments need to be meaningful in providing accurate feedback to students but that this does not require identical grade distributions across departments." 

The committee strongly endorsed the second objective of the current policy, using grades to give students clear feedback about the quality of their work. "This objective strikes us as integral to any grading policy," but "we do not believe that grades are the only means, or even necessarily the most effective means, of giving such feedback. Instead it is the quality and content of instructor feedback — how detailed, informative and timely it is — that matters most and that should receive the highest emphasis in any grading policy." 

In the course of its work the committee surveyed faculty members and undergraduates; created a public comment website; met with administrators, faculty members and students at Princeton; consulted with colleagues at other institutions; and analyzed existing quantitative and qualitative data. The survey results are included in the committee's report. 

In assessing the overall impact of the existing policy, the committee did not find evidence that it had any measurable negative impact on Princeton students’ competitiveness for graduate school, professional schools, postgraduate fellowships or employment. They concluded: "The best reasons to change Princeton's grading policy have more to do with psychological factors and campus atmosphere than with any tangible effects is has on the prospects of our students..." 

The committee also noted a misperception among potential applicants to Princeton that under the existing policy the number of A-range grades was limited, and thus that students may not be properly rewarded for their work. On the basis of conversations with Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye, the committee concluded that "removing numerical targets would go a long way towards alleviating these concerns. … People fixate on numbers, and the very existence of a numerical guideline such as 35 percent serves as a lightning rod, giving (perhaps wrongly) the impression of inflexibility. Removing the numerical target without changing the intent of the policy would solve many of these issues." 

The ad hoc committee was chaired by Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Clancy Rowley and received staff support from Associate Dean of the College Elizabeth Colagiuri. Members of the committee, in addition to Professor Rowley, were Henry Farber (Economics), Devin Fore (German), Alison Gammie (Molecular Biology), William Gleason (English), Joshua Katz (Classics), Brian Kernighan (Computer Science), Bess Ward (Geosciences), and Robert Wuthnow (Sociology).