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May 12, 2012 / Michael Yaroshefsky

Thoughts on the ALTA Report and the Grading Policy

This represents my personal views, not those of the USG or the ALTA committee.

After over one year in the making, the Academic Life Total Assessment Committee has published our report.  You can find it here. I am incredibly grateful to the committee of superstars that have selflessly given of their time and energies to produce this report.

Click the cover to download the report

At 100 pages, it’s certainly not a quick read, but you can check the table of contents and read the sections and recommendations that you are most interested in.  We’ve addressed a number of important issues that have been overshadowed by the grading policy but really needed to be addressed.

I think students may be disappointed that ALTA did not suggest getting rid of grade deflation at Princeton, but we didn’t have the support to do it, it would decrease overall effectiveness of the report, and it may soon be less of an issue.

Surprisingly, student opinion of grade deflation was too mixed for us to challenge the policy.  Of those that expressed an opinion, the policy was opposed 2-to-1.  However, there were many students without an expressed opinion, meaning the absolute portion of students against the policy (56%) was not as strong as it would need to be (80% or more, I think would be convincing) to recommend a repeal.  We did in no uncertain terms explain how the policy has been misapplied and how concerning it is.  Nonetheless, going into the arena against grade deflation without a strong student mandate would be unsuccessful and draw attention away from the other important issues the report covered.

Better yet, it seems the policy is going to become less of an issue.  Although it is going to remain on the books, some very reliable sources have suggested that the new goal in West College will be to shift the emphasis of grading from the 35% cutoff and towards feedback that will help students.  It seems obvious that this is the right direction. I think providing feedback that will help students learn is a more important goal of assessment than having grades be “rigorous markers of academic performance in an extremely challenging program of undergraduate study.”

This will probably mean the grading policy policing mechanisms will gradually become less intrusive and the specter of the policy will fade (it’ll be less like Minority Report pre-crime cops descending on a professor’s office when she gives out one too many A’s).  I don’t think Princeton will suddenly hand out A’s as generously as our peers in Cambridge and New Haven, but I think professors will feel less pressure to split hairs. It might be a public embarrassment for the University to formally retract the policy, so this seems a graceful way to handle a policy that, in my opinion, has had an overall negative impact on the University.

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