ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

The Allure of As

August 15, 2014 by Alex McHugh

Princeton’s faculty will vote in October on whether to end a policy that limits the percentage of “A-range” grades earned in a given class. Since 2004 Princeton has used this approach to hold grade inflation in check but now, after convening a task force to study it, they may scrap the policy.

It would be shame if the worries raised in the task force’s report led Princeton to abandon the fight against grade inflation. Grade inflation must be kept in check if the deterioration of academic standards is to be halted. Rather than abandoning that effort, Princeton has a unique opportunity to learn from the past ten years to develop an even better “grade deflation” plan.  

Why not continue the current program? The well-intentioned grade limit, they say, has given way to a renewed climb in average GPA. It’s also discouraged some students from attending Princeton and fostered a hyper-competitive culture that distracts from learning. Most notable among students’ anxieties is the worry that, since other Ivies won’t follow suit, the policy puts Princeton grads at a disadvantage.

The deeper issue is that a hard limit on As gets it wrong by focusing on grades themselves rather than the underlying culture that encourages grade inflation.

As one Princeton professor told the New York Times, the targets reduced grading to a formula. “We should be having a conversation about what we do when we’re grading,” said Jeremy Adelman, a history professor. “Grading is a signaling device, and we’re communicating with students. People got really fixated on the numbers and not on the practice of what we’re doing.”

Indeed, the task-force’s report pointed to instances of professors arbitrarily lowering grades on assignments, post-hoc, to fit the curve. The report makes one thing clear: when it comes to grade inflation, it’s not the letters or numbers themselves that need to be controlled, it’s a culture that focuses on GPA instead of educational attainment.

For too many students, the purpose of higher ed isn’t rigorous study or mastery of a field, it’s the gathering of credentials and “qualifications.” A re-centering of higher ed on actual education is what Princeton and others should aim for.  

But perhaps the most interesting task-force finding was that Princeton experienced most of the observed average GPA decrease in the years leading up to the policy’s adoption (see above). What this shows is that the policy itself did less to curb inflation than did simple awareness of the problem and, crucially, agreement that it was a problem.

Encouragingly, Princeton’s task force maintains the consensus that something should be done about grade inflation. Their report considers several policies that could replace the current one.         

The most viable option considered is to simply provide more context for inflated grades. This is the approach Dartmouth has taken to some success, printing the median grades for each class a student takes on their transcript next to the grade that student earned. One advantage of this approach is that there’s no need to account for variations across departments or years, another issue Princeton discovered in implementing the A-limit. The Princeton task force doubted, however, that: “any of these options would alleviate anxiety around grades or soften the competitive atmosphere on campus.”

We see more reason for optimism. A Dartmouth-like policy will allow students to collect the “As” they find so alluring but still get a more accurate idea of their academic progress. It’s reasonable to expect that competition over “above average” status in a class won’t reach the levels of intensity seen when students were competing over a finite number of “A grades.” When half the class can “win” it’s not as crucial to sabotage other top-performers.

Despite the imperfections of this approach, Princeton should consider trying it. Whatever policy they choose, our hope is that the October vote leaves the school with an even better anti-inflation program and a renewed commitment to rigorous standards.

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