Princeton faculty approves changes to grading policy

The Princeton faculty on Monday, Oct. 6, approved changes to the University's undergraduate grading policy that include removing numerical targets and replacing them with grading standards developed and articulated by each department.

The faculty acted on a recommendation from the Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing, which accepted the recommendations (PDF) of a nine-member ad hoc committee that President Christopher L. Eisgruber appointed in 2013.

The ad hoc committee concluded 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 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 recommended 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." This recommendation also was approved by the faculty vote.  

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 assessing the overall impact of the grading policy, the committee found no evidence that it had any measurable negative impact on Princeton students' competitiveness for graduate school, professional schools, postgraduate fellowships or employment. "The best reasons to change Princeton's grading policy have more to do with psychological factors and campus atmosphere than with any tangible effects it has on the prospects of our students...," the committee said. 

The committee also noted a misperception among potential applicants to Princeton that under the existing policy 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." 

In making its recommendations to the faculty, the Committee on Examinations and Standing proposed that at the start of each year it would review the grading history for each department and program, and the dean of the college would continue to report to the faculty on the grading record of the previous academic year. 

"The Committee on Examinations and Standing is firmly committed to the integrity of the University's grading system and believes that these proposed measures will support rigor, fairness and transparency in assessment and grading practices while achieving the University's pedagogical goals," the committee wrote.

The grading policy amended by the faculty was initially adopted in 2004.