A ''Grade A " Controversy: A Dialogue on Grading Policies and Related Issues in Higher Education

Article excerpt

On April 26, 2004 the Associated Press released an article announcing that the faculty at Princeton University had voted 156 to 84 to approve a new policy to respond to grade inflation (Princeton approves grade-rationing, 2004). Despite efforts since 1998 to encourage Princeton faculty to reduce the number of As assigned, the ratio has grown to 46% in recent years, as compared to 31% in the 1970s. Under the new policy, which goes into effect beginning fall 2004, faculty must limit the number of As awarded in the standard undergraduate courses they teach to 35%. For juniors and seniors engaged in independent study, up to 55% may be awarded As. Now that Princeton is leading the way, are other institutions likely to follow? The purpose of this column, presented in a dialogue format, is to discuss some of the issues inherent to the Princeton policy and to provide the foundation for further conversation at both the local and national levels.

The Princeton faculty's decision to implement a new policy was based upon that institution's analysis of local grading trends over three decades. Faculty and administrators at other colleges and universities, and particularly at other Ivy League institutions and at large public research universities, have voiced similar concerns (Bartlett, 2003; Grade Inflation, 2003; Marklein, 2002; Milzoff, Paley, & Reed, 2001; Rojstaczer, 2003; Rosovsky & Hartley, 2002; Special Report, 2003), which have been publicized widely in campus, local, and national media, including such diverse publications as the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, and USA Today.

Over the past four decades, some of the potential reasons cited for grade inflation have included enabling students to maintain their draft deferments during the Vietnam War era (Princeton approves grade-rationing, 2004; Rojstaczer, 2003), or more recently their grade-based full-tuition scholarships, such as the state of Georgia's Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally (HOPE) scholarship (Georgia's HOPE scholarship program, n.d.; Brice, 1997). Faculty members have gone on record to report situations in which they have felt pressured to award higher grades?. Stuart Rojstaczer (2003), a professor at Duke University who has also served as a visiting scholar at Stanford University, wrote that he had not assigned a C for 2 years. He asserted,

A's are common as dirt in universities nowadays because it's almost impossible for a professor to grade honestly. If I sprinkle my classroom with the C's some students deserve, my class will suffer from declining enrollments in future years. In the marketplace mentality of higher education, low enrollments are taken as a sign of poor-quality instruction.

Harvey Mansfield (2001), a professor of government at Harvard University, wrote, At Harvard, we have lost the notion of an average student. By that I mean a Harvard average, not a comparison with the high-school average that enabled our students to be admitted here. When bright students take a step up and find themselves with other bright students, they should face a new, higher standard of excellence.

The loss of the notion of average shows that professors today do not begin with their own criteria for the performance of students in their courses. Professors do not say to themselves, "This is what I can require; anything above that enters into excellence." No. With an eye to student course evaluations and confounded by the realization that they have somehow lost their authority, professors begin from what they think students expect. American colleges used to set their own expectations. Now, increasingly, they react to student expectations . . .

Thus, a recurring theme is that faculty members who do not capitulate to students' expectations for higher grades will face lower course enrollments and evaluations by students-factors that are considered in the merit raise and promotion and tenure processes. Mansfield proposed,

In a healthy university, it would not be necessary to say what is wrong with grade inflation. …