I have earlier reported that Princeton's new President has initiated a review of their "grade deflation" policy that was put in almost ten years ago. As you may recall (link), grading in U.S. colleges has become a farce: at top-tier schools, getting an A means you are an average student; not getting an A is many times more informative than getting an A.
The new administration at Princeton has now decided to abandon this cause, pending a faculty vote next month, and return to the old normal. This development is highly regrettable, and a failure of leadership. (The new policy leaves it to individual departments to do whatever they want.)
The recent Alumni publication has two articles about this topic, one penned by President Eisgruber himself. I'm not impressed by the level of reasoning and logic displayed here.
Eisgruber's piece is accompanied with a photo, captioned thus:
The goal of Princeton's grading policy is to provide students with meaningful feedback on their performance in courses and independent work.
Such a goal is far too vague to be practical. But let's take this vague policy at face value. How "meaningful" is this feedback when 40% of grades handed out are As, and 80% of grades are either As or Bs? (At Stanford, Harvard, etc., the distributions are even more skewed.)
This tortured logic seems to suggest that the deflated grades are somehow less "meaningful" than the inflated grades of the past. How so? (The grade-deflation policy establishes guidance to limit As to about 35%, apparently by department but also not strictly enforced.)
Eisgruber offered the following justification for rethinking the grade deflation policy:
Almost 10 years after its enactment, the policy remained a lightning rod of controversy and a considerable source of stress for many students, parents, alumni, and faculty members. And regrettably, none of our immediate peer institutions followed our example in taking tough measures to address grade inflation. As a result, Princeton, which ought to be renowned for the unsurpassed quality of its teaching, was attracting more attention for the severity of its curve.
The committee found no evidence that the grading policy hindered Princeton students' competitiveness in seeking postgraduate employment, fellowships, ... Perceptions of the policy, however, have been a very real source of stress for students, which concerned the committee.
None of this has anything to do with the meaning of grades. In fact, if stress is the primary concern, one might do away with grades altogether.
The committeee also did its best to contort the interpretation of data. This is the chart showing the extent of grade inflation at Princeton (kudos to the administrators for making it public - looking to you Stanford, Harvard, Yale for the conspicuous silence):
A reasonable conclusion from the above chart is that the creation and enactment of the grade deflation policy has led to a shift of the distribution of grades from As to Bs. Another clear message is that the 35% target was not robustly applied as even after the policy came into place, the proportion of As stayed above 40 percent. (I am not sure how to explain the apparent plunge in students taking Pass/D/Fail courses around the same time. I'm guessing a separate policy change occurred at that time.)
Worryingly, this is not how Princeton views the chart. The committee members focused on the fact that the shift started "in advance of current policy's implementation in 2005", therefore "the numerical targets may have been only partially responsible for reversing a pattern of higher grading". They then claimed that this other cause is "sustained conversation about grading." Without any data, as far as I can tell, not only did they claim the existence of such an effect but they also asserted that this factor "may be as effective as numerical targets in keeping rising grades in check". In other words, based on the chart, they concluded that the change in proportion of As is caused by two equally important factors, the explicit policy to curb As, and "sustained conversation about grading".
In fact, the committee members seemed confused as they also said "the fraction of A grades... increased between 2009 and 2013 as monitoring of the policy grew more lax." What happened to the sustained conversation?
There are two central contradictions between the diagnosis and the proposed solution.
The committee made a case that changing grading policy requires cooperation. If only Princeton takes the lead, and no other peer institution follows, then Princeton is at a disadvantage. And yet, they are proposing to dismantle a coordinated school-wide policy in favor of each department doing its own thing. I'd argue that at the department level, the same dynamic applies. There is no incentive for any particular department to take the lead in curbing As. In fact, the natural equilibrium is for all departments to grade inflate. (Think prisoner's dilemma.)
The other concern of the committee is the "stress" caused to everyone by the new policy. Presumably, such stress is what sustains a conversation about grading. I'd like to know how it is that such conversation would persist in the future.
The final word appears to be a rejection of quantitative measurement. Here's Eisgruber:
The committee wisely said: If it's feedback that we care about, and differentiating between good and better and worse work, that's what we should focus on, not on numbers.
The wisdom has eluded me.
PS. [11/25/2014] Andrew Gelman and his readers have some good discussion about this post here.