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Letters from alumni about grade inflation

July 13, 2004

Don Hellmann says, "I received the only "1" in a class of 550 in the first semester and one of two "1's" in a similar size class, second semester. This works out to an "A" ratio of .0027 percent."

I'm guessing Professor Hellmann is not a professor of arithmetic. ;-) 3/1100 is approximately .0027=0.27%, not 0.0027%.

Bradley Brock *93 s'87
Princeton, N.J.

P.S. I'm surprised that many, but not all, of the letter writers responding to the grade inflation article seemed to have missed the point. In order for grades to have any meaning their distribution must have a nontrivial standard deviation. The problem is not so much grade inflation as it is grade compression. Those against any solution to the problem seem to be saying that there should be no way for the exceptional student to distinguish herself from the rest of the 47 percent who are getting A's. Although the 35 percent rule may be far from the perfect solution, I think most reasonable alumni would agree that doing nothing is unacceptable. If we can't expand the standard deviation in one direction, maybe we should expand in the other direction and create new grades such as AA and AAA, as we do for eggs, battery sizes, and minor leagues.

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May 31, 2004

Princeton has returned to the cutting edge of academic innovation with its initiative to reduce the number of "A's" awarded to undergraduates from 46 percent to 35 percent.

This is commendable, but is also perplexing and, hopefully, just a beginning. In the twilight of a successful and satisfying academic career, I still consider among my most treasured achievements my grades as a sophomore in two superb and popular English courses. I received the only "1" in a class of 550 in the first semester and one of two "1's" in a similar size class, second semester. This works out to an "A" ratio of .0027 percent.

Unless the student species has undergone an evolutionary transformation, the debasement of the grade "currency" at Princeton and elsewhere, has not been inflation, but hyperinflation.

Don Hellmann '55
University of Washington, Seattle

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May 28, 2004

That Princeton's students are "concern[ed]" and "worried" about grades; that a Dean "propose[s]", "persuade[s], "encourage[s] and "consult[s]"; that departments sometimes "act cooperatively"; that the faculty could "set expectations for" and "scrutinize the distribution of grades" (rank ordering?); that History might "look at" "grade definitions" and instructors are "willing to take a closer look at "grade definitions" (criterion assessment?); that the University "plans to explain" and to "remind", but that the "policy's impact" is still "unclear".

Six years on, does this mean merely that Princeton University is still playing with the idea of rank ordering and is tiptoeing round the edge of criterion assessment?

What has Princeton actually done?

F. W. Price *71
Harrogate, North Yorkshire

Price is a former head of department, external examiner, English Assessor Higher Education Funding Council of England, coordinator UK English subject response 1995 Teaching Quality Assessment External Assessor Qualification and Curriculum Authority of England

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May 17, 2004

In all of the discussion concerning "Too Many A's" (May 12, Notebook), an obvious point about “grade inflation” has been overlooked. In espousing the notion of grades as inflated currency, the faculty has embraced an economic metaphor wholly inappropriate to its educational mission. Grades are not “currency” to be used to achieve an end, but rather, are a measure of intellectual mastery. Why can’t professors set objective standards that all students can achieve? Is it conceivable that computer technologies and a lot of hard work (as reflected by soaring high school grades and SAT scores) have resulted in members of the Class of 2007 who are simply better students then the Class of 1977? Of course! So why seek to diminish their achievement by an arbitrary lowering of their college grades?

One of the most popular professors in my day, Maitland Jones, made an “A” in Organic Chemistry accessible to anyone and everyone who mastered his clearly defined syllabus. For many years, I emulated this approach while teaching epidemiology to first-year medical students at Cornell. One year, my senior instructor came to me with a “huge problem.” “Over half of the students got A’s on your final exam this year!” she moaned, and then requested my permission to “adjust the curve downward.” I dismissed her suggestion with a rhetorical question: “So our students must be punished because — evidently — they have learned too much?”

Kenneth Offit ’77
New York, N.Y.

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May 7, 2004

I am writing in response to Princeton administrators' recent decision to crack down on what they call the problem of grade inflation by limiting the number of A's to 35%. As a Princeton graduate, life-long educator, and former writing instructor at Princeton, I am dismayed and offended by this policy, which is deeply disrespectful to teachers, students, and to the learning process itself.

The new proposal is based upon a series of faulty assumptions that need to be carefully reexamined. Why is it considered a problem when the majority of Princeton students do outstanding work and receive A's? Am I wrong to assume that the Princeton admission office does an excellent job selecting some of the most intelligent and highly motivated young people in the world? As an educator, I would certainly be far more concerned if the majority of my students were failing.

Princeton's grading policy follows a model of economics, not education, and assumes a scarcity of resources. In other words, there are not enough A's to go around. Grade "inflation" is also an economic term and presumes that if there are too many A's, an A has less worth. There is an underlying assumption that not everyone can or should be expected to do well. Rather, the student body should be stratified, like the society. Instead of having high and low wage earners, we have high and low grade earners. Princeton students do not represent a cross section of the population, yet in giving A's to no more than 35%, the administrators are suggesting that stratification of the population is necessary and desirable.

There is an alternative model in education, one that is not based upon economics but upon learning: the model of mastery. This does not mean that in a 12-week semester a student will learn everything about a particular subject. Rather, it means that learning takes place on a continuum, and the teacher sets certain goals which he/she wishes the students to master during the duration of the course. In my writing classes, for example, there were particular skills I wanted my students to master, but I also told them that the class was just a small fragment in their life-long journey as writers. In setting goals toward mastery, it is the role of the institution to support students on that journey. If the institution arbitrarily limits high student achievement to 35%, it is seriously interfering with the learning process.

The recent Princeton proposal states that the purpose of grades is to "calibrate the effectiveness of students' efforts and motivate them to stretch to do their best work, to convey student achievement to the public, and to identify students who are not thriving."

That may be the stated purpose of grades, but what is the real role of grades in learning? Perhaps they can motivate, but they can also discourage. They may target the slackers, but they often cause students to give up on learning. Grades can cause students to think more about product than process. They can discourage creativity when students are thinking about "what the teacher wants" instead of delving into what the student really thinks.

Perhaps grades let the public know who the achievers really are, but they also create unhealthy competition and discourage cooperation. In public life, cooperation is a key characteristic of well-performing organizations. The competitive model is not only inappropriate to education, but it doesn't adequately prepare students for the working world either.

If Princeton wishes to be in the forefront of higher education in this discussion, it might look instead at alternative ways to assess student work. Grades themselves are a shorthand form of evaluation that have no intrinsic meaning. However, students need genuine feedback in order to learn. Effective models of assessment help teachers to define their goals, share those goals with students, and assess students' work accordingly. When assessment becomes an integral part of the learning process, students are able to integrate what they have learned from the assessment and apply it. Written comments from teachers, teacher/student conferences, opportunities to revise, and chances to read and respond to other students' work can all help students to understand how to assess their progress and further their learning.

Princeton students deserve a more thoughtful and integrated approach to evaluating student work. If I were at Princeton now, I would do everything I could to see that this out-moded system of rewards and punishments, social stratification, competition, and subjectivity be replaced immediately with an assessment program that focuses instead on student learning.

Susan Danoff ’75
Princeton, N.J.

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April 27, 2004

It seems that there's something rotten in West College these days. Two events at the end of April unmasked a worrisome trend away from a basic respect towards students' rights and towards heavy-handed, monolithic rule-making. Deans Malkiel and Deignan have apparently forgotten that their jobs exist only as a corollary to the students at the University.

Dean Malkiel's desire to push through the "grade inflation" proposal with as much secrecy as possible is a clear smack in the face to the student body, who is the only group actually affected by the proposal (it's no skin off the faculty's back, except insofar as it restricts their freedom and integrity in grading).

Perhaps more worrisome is Dean Deignan's decision to deploy Public Safety officers to a student residence to confiscate perfectly legal T-shirts that happen to advocate/advertise/reference something that she opposes. Regardless of any message contained on these t-shirts, they were not contraband. Dean Deignan's decision was irresponsible and likely illegal and her refusal to deal with this issue quickly by avoiding the students involved is nothing more than a childish diversionary tactic.

Perhaps members of the administration can use the upcoming summer break to remind themselves that they are there to provide for a positive and safe atmosphere for the students and not to trample on student rights however they choose, no matter how serious the problem of grade inflation may be (the jury's still out) and the problem of alcohol abuse is.
Marc Aaron Melzer '02
Philadelphia, Pa.

*Non illegitimi carborundum*
"History has consequences, but it need have no permanent franchise on the future." - Prof. John Fleming (Daily Princetonian, 10/24/02)

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April 19, 2004

The article, " Is It Grade Inflation, Or Are Students Just Smarter ? " by Karen Arenson in the New York Times' Week in Review section, Sunday, April 18, 2004, highlights Princeton "where A's accounted for 47% of grades last year, up from 31% in the 1970's " and "administrators and some faculty have proposed correcting for so-called grade inflation by limiting A's to 35 percent of course grades. " That is a correction? I counter it is ambivalence and abstruse posturing. You are either pregnant or you're not. Are students just smarter? My experience says that is a rationalization and the right answer is "no. "

It appears that the professional graduate schools are dictating to Princeton how to grade because grades, class rank, and the PSAT are all they consider for admission, not the quality and rigor of the undergraduate program. Trumpeting ourselves as highly selective, Princeton admitted 1,631 students ( 11.9% ) to the Class of 2008. Most if not all are high academic achievers, all capable of A grades at Princeton. If that selection process is what it is purported to be, then it would follow that perhaps the inverse of 47%, or 74%, should get A's.

Is it not the reality that the university admits many Princeton level C students because they offer participation to a high degree in extracurricular activities including athletics. It is a sign of motivation, determination, and contribution to the community at large. But, isn't a C at Princeton equivalent to an A at many other not so rigorous universities? I thought so. Apparently, the graduate schools of law, medicine, business do not ascribe to that conclusion. How many of their applicants have ever submitted a senior thesis just to graduate! Therefore, grade inflation exists to satisfy their conditions for admittance. Princeton University lets THEM dictate! It does not become Princeton to be so fawningly subservient.

However, nearly all students at Princeton by the mere fact they were admitted on a very highly selective basis academically are A students — and, the Princeton equivalent of A students. From that point forward the highly selective process begins to juxtapose this class body with themselves to be graded on a comparative basis with each other. Within that august circle, the bell-shaped grading curve is , or use to be intelligently , applied — a very few receive 1's or A's, the majority then must fall in the larger mid-range of C- to B+. The very highest mark is given sparingly, by the very nature of the bell-shaped curve, and by the fact that only a very few professor's conclusions may judge the submitted novel to be one by the alter-ego of Hemingway or the lab work equivalent to Jonas Salk.

It seems that Princeton has redrawn the bell-shaped curve into a theme park roller-coaster with the right finish line elevated to a high plateau. That would not get a high mark in the engineering department.

For Princeton to pander to the graduate schools with ridiculous grade inflation makes a mockery of "the curve, " which should be restored to its rightful shape in the academic galaxy. If the grad schools think that a Princeton degree is equivalent to PawPaw College, that is their problem. I thought the first consideration of the admission office was that the candidate could do the work, was an academic A, and then they looked at other valid considerations for admission. If there is a senior thesis in microbiology that convincingly demonstrates the valid claim of half-pregnancies, that may be worth a 1+. Invoking the current grading house of mirrors I would like to resubmit several blue book papers for a new mark on my transcript.

Laurence C. Day ' 55
St. Louis, Mo.

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April 18, 2004

Alex Rosenfeld's letter on potential unintended/unanticipated consequences to proposals to combat grade inflation makes several points worthy of consideration by anyone involved in this process. One would expect no less from a Princeton graduate!

But that exclamation highlights another aspect to the discussion: A Princeton degree opens doors. This is primarily because it represents ultracompetitive admissions and highly rigorous training and only secondarily because of alumni networking. I would be flabbergasted to hear of any corporation, professional school, or government organization that did not immediately shuffle a Princeton-degreed applicant up to the top of any pile of résumés. (If Alex does know of financial institutions that do, I wish he would email me their names so I can ensure I don't have my money invested in them.) However, once an applicant has made the short list, their credentials need to stand on their own. If Princeton wants to help employers quantify GPA scores, they can simply provide the grade distribution percentages along with every transcript they send out.

From my own corporate experience and training, quality recruiting relies heavily on interviews and testimonials, e.g. letters of recommendation, not GPAs, to assess candidates at this level. Transcripts usually figure into the interview as a convenient and relevant point to probe in order to flesh out what the candidate has done and not what they say they want to do. Fundamentally, past performance is the best predictor of future performance. A "C" pulled up to a "B" or "A" is a very positive sign and something a candidate can use to good advantage to get their foot in the door. An "A" from an institution that awards that grade indiscriminately can make it more difficult for a candidate to highlight meaningful past performance to an interviewer.

So, in summary, a Princeton degree opens doors, but it's not a free pass and grade inflation can cut both ways. Personally, I favor making an "A" stand for the crème-de-la-crème. William and Mary makes a strong point that an "A" at their institution is really earned, and I don't hear their graduates complaining they are shut out of top schools and challenging, rewarding jobs.

Finally, from a purely selfish perspective, I d**n-well earned my A's during my undergraduate years and fervently hope that undergraduates today can have the same pride of accomplishment I had in my achievements.

Stewart A. Levin ’75
Englewood, Colo.

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April 13, 2004

The University got somewhat of a black eye several years ago concerning the grading curve, and I am glad to see the administration taking steps to limit the number of A's. The New York Times reports that some faculty members oppose having to lower their grades. In response, I suggest the University adopt a system of anonymous grading for exams, which would help the faculty stick to a curve and has the additional benefits of being fair and efficient.

Every law school I know of works on a system of anonymous grading for exams. The system enjoys broad support by both faculty and students, and it is simple to administer. The registrar assigns each student a number for the exam period, and the student identifies himself or herself by number on the blue book. (The honor code pledge could still be written and the writing of the number serve as a signature.) The faculty submits the grades to the registrar by matching exam grades with student numbers. Class participation adjustments can be reported to the registrar by using the student’s name. To ensure anonymity of the exam, a professor has no power to change the final grade once it is posted.

From a student’s perspective, the system ensures the integrity of the professor’s evaluation of the exam. A student has no basis for claiming that the professor treated the student unfairly. Also, students are saved the temptation to approach the professor to plead for a revision of the grade (or wondering whether other students are doing so). The honor code is intended to ensure the integrity of exams, and anonymous grading is a major step in that direction.

The faculty also derives advantages. First, the professor can be confident that he or she evaluated each exam on its merits without being influenced by preconceptions about the author. Second, it is easier to assign a C to C work when ignorant of the recipient. Thus, anonymous grading would help return the grading curve to an appropriate shape. Third, the professor is saved from having to deal with students seeking an upward grade adjustment. The student who is interested in discussing the exam will still appear during office hours, but those whose interest is limited to grade adjustment stop taking a professor’s valuable time.

Thomas B. Roberts ’75
Philadelphia, Pa.

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April 9, 2004

I am writing in regard to the University's controversial proposal to curb grade inflation. As a recent graduate, I am well aware of the high percentage of students who receive top marks within many of the undergraduate courses at Princeton.

Nevertheless, it was my experience as an undergraduate that, in most cases, these “inflated” grades are in fact well deserved and reflect the ever increasing caliber and work ethic of students admitted to the school, a phenomenon owing to the competitiveness of the college admission process and the popularity of Princeton among top undergraduate institutions.

This, however, is an argument for another time. My greater concern is the effect these newly proposed policies might have on undergraduates and their career aspirations “beyond the gates.”

Since starting as an analyst at a bulge-bracket investment bank, I've become involved in the undergraduate recruiting process for summer interns and full-time hires. Having sat in on various recruiting sessions, I can tell you that (1) one of the first items looked at on a candidate’s résumé is his or her GPA and (2) rarely is any consideration given as to the grading policies, lenient or rigorous, at that given candidate's school.

I'm confident this situation holds for other investment banks, as well as institutions, large and small, in other popular career paths for Princetonians. Many institutions, in their hiring practices, have GPA cutoffs below which they will not even consider an applicant for a position. Princeton students could potentially find their résumés being passed over for internships and jobs while inferior students at peer institutions are readily considered. This could very well be the case for the graduate school application process, as well.

Should anyone expect, for example, the admission committee at a small state chartered medical school in California, with 100 students per class, to know that a 3.3 pre-med GPA at Princeton is equivalent to a 3.7 pre-med GPA at one of its peer institutions? In its proposed policy reform, the University does not seem to have weighed the possibility that its students will suddenly find themselves at a handicap to undergraduates from other schools in the competition for summer internship and postgraduate opportunities.

Regardless of the excellence of the Princeton education, recruiting and admissions are often conducted, out of necessity, at a superficial level. It is the University's obligation to its students to acknowledge such realities of the real world in shaping its grading policy.

Dean Malkiel has justified the proposed grading policy changes by saying that they will provide students with greater clarity on their academic performance, allowing them “to know [when their] work is really superb.”

I'm sorry, but I'd wager that the average Princeton student is rightfully and rationally more concerned with being best positioned to fulfill his or her long-term career ambitions than knowing whether his or her politics papers is marginally better than that of the kid sitting next to him or her in precept.

One of the biggest factors in Princeton's continued popularity is the excellent career opportunities available to its students both during and after college. Curbing grade inflation would curb these opportunities, inevitably damaging the school's attractiveness to prospective students.

Furthermore, Princeton relies heavily on the charitable giving of its alumni. It’s not inconceivable that Princeton graduates, finding themselves in less favorable career paths, would be less willing and able to give back to their alma mater as generously as past alumni. The administration's proposed grade inflation policies have much wider, graver implications than it seems to have taken into consideration. For the sake of undergraduates and the University itself, this is unfortunate.

Alex Rosenfeld ’03
New York, N.Y.

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