Since before Robert’s post on this topic, I’ve been pondering grades in general, prompted by this post by Will Baude relating his experience at Yale, where he hasn’t yet “taken any classes that attempt to draw actual distinctions among the students.” Indeed, the very purpose of grading (as opposed to marking, as my Canadian colleague refers to it) is to discriminate among students on the basis of their academic performance. Thus all of the participants in the debate are right in their own ways, but I think they (individually, at least) miss the big picture.
Leopold Stotch and Steven Taylor both bemoan the administrative meddling in grade assignment inherent in Princeton’s decision, a sentiment with which (as a fellow political science professor) I must concur, lest we become like those emasculated law profs who not only no longer control their grades but also lack control over their own exam conditions. On the other hand, Nathan Novak thinks it’s a non-issue, due to the widespread use of class rank to compare students from different institutions; Andrew Samwick makes a similar point, although he acknowledges that grade inflation does lead to compression of the grade range. At the extreme end of the scale, the Grouch thinks grades don’t matter at all; I wouldn’t go that far, due to reasons of path dependence, but I can see his point—few people today care what grades I got in high school or as an undergraduate, but I wouldn’t be a professor today if I hadn’t gotten mostly A’s and B’s.
I think what Princeton is trying to do (rightly or wrongly) is address the “compression” problem that Andrew talks about—if 50% of the class are getting A’s, ny meaningful discrimination among those students has been eliminated; in other words, there’s been a loss of information in the process. If the purpose of grading is simply to drop passing students in buckets based on their absolute performance, giving 50% of students A’s might be appropriate; on the other hand, if the purpose of grading is to determine the relative merit of students, putting 50% of them in a single category isn’t very helpful.
The trouble is, we expect grades to do both of these things. The Millsaps college catalog, for example, requires all political science majors and minors to earn C’s in all of their coursework for the major (which leads to its own sort of compression effect, since effectively the minimum passing grade is raised from a 60 to a 73), and students must maintain a 2.0 GPA to participate in various and sundry extracurricular activities—the C and 2.0 represent absolute standards. But we also use grades to evaluate relative achievement, for election to honorary societies such as Phi Beta Kappa and for awarding other honors.
I don’t know that there’s a simple answer to these problems, although perhaps including measures of central tendency and dispersion along with assigned grades (as is at least partially the case at Dartmouth, according to Andrew) might be a good start.