Monday, February 9, 2009

Grade Deflation's Positive Effect - Better Grades for Tougher Courses

From the discussion in comments on the recent Prince story on how the growth rate of Princeton applications has slowed compared to Harvard and Yale, to discussions like these on College Confidential, (a site for students going through the college application process) the Princeton community seems to be raising the concern that grade deflation is causing a drop in application rates. Before the course enrollment period ends for this year, which is my last as an undergraduate at Princeton, I wanted to share the advice I give to any young student who asks about what courses to take, and how to build a successful academic record.

I believe that beyond the traditional arguments between more accurate standards and reducing job and graduate school prospects, Princeton's unique grade deflation policy has a major positive aspect: encouraging students to take more difficult undergraduate courses, and graduate courses. I base this argument on my personal experience and a story I wrote on grade deflation for the Prince after talking to Dean Malkiel and nearly every department head as a sophomore; I consider the grade deflation policy one of the few areas where I have more than usual expertise on Princeton academic life. Other columnists for the Prince have commented on some of the unforseen, and negative, effects of the policy as well.

Despite many students and professors who misconceive exactly how the policy works, grade deflation applies to departments as a whole, not to individual classes. Some students and professors -- mistakenly -- view the policy as a quota of 35% A-range grades that cannot be exceeded in each individual class. The policy actually sets 35% A-range grades as a target for departments as a whole, meaning that certain classes could have more or fewer than 35% A-range grades, but over the whole department, A's awarded should average out to the target of 35%.

As a practical result of the policy, departments often try to award fewer A-range grades in lower level and introductory courses (100-300 level, for example), and award more A-range grades in higher-level courses (400 level, for example). To cite a specific case, as I understand it, the "mathematical track" of ECO 310, 311, and 312 in the Economics Department awards a higher percentage of A's than the non-mathematical track of core courses ECO 300, 301, and 302. This differential, if I understand it correctly, (and please correct me in an e-mail or the comments if my knowledge of the department's policy is out-of-date) is certainly fair and understandable: a student challenging him or her self in the more difficult course could drop down to the easier one and earn a higher grade, so he or she should not be punished (in terms of grading) for taking the more difficult course.

Because the grade deflation policy applies to departments as a whole, departments have an incentive to save higher grades for more difficult courses, to avoid penalizing students who choose to take the tougher course. As a result, the grade deflation policy has the commendable effect of encouraging students to take tougher courses.

Additionally, the graduate school at Princeton does not have a grade deflation policy. As a result, professors in graduate courses are not buffeted by a downward pressure on grades. Students who take tougher courses, in this case at the graduate level, are rewarded for challenging themselves with better grades if they do the work thoroughly.

Regardless of the contentious (and necessary) broader debate over the impact of the grade deflation policy on applications to Princeton or the job market, the grade deflation policy does have the positive effect of encouraging students to take more difficult courses. As a result, this is my advice to young students currently shopping classes: take that 400 or 500 level course, you will be rewarded for challenging yourself!


Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. I believe you are generally correct about the grading in ECO 310/1/2 versus ECO 300/1/2. However, I know that the professor for ECO 312 in Spring 2007 told his students that he adhered to the 35% A's quota *for that specific class.* Just one example of the policy gone awry.

Anonymous said...

Eco 312 was not taught in Spring 312...

Anonymous said...

Thanks to the second poster for correcting my error - I had ECO 312 and 313 confused. I guess my point is a little moot, but not entirely, as no professor should ever follow the 35% quota for a specific class.