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Students React to Cap on Grades

By Monika L.S. Robbins, Contributing Writer

Six years after Princeton capped the number of A’s its professors doled out, discussion over grade inflation has reemerged on Ivy League campuses.

Students at Princeton recently expressed discontent with their school’s grade inflation policy, which limits the number of A’s awarded in each department to 35 percent.

A Dec. 2 editorial in The Daily Princetonian denounced the grading system, stating that “the policy itself has too many harmful consequences that outweigh the good intentions behind the system.”

While Harvard students do not face the same grade caps as their Princeton counterparts, most share their conviction that grade limits do more harm than good.

“It wouldn’t be fair if more than half of the class deserved A’s, but couldn’t get them,” said Lawrence Chan ’13.

Atasha A. Jordan ’13 said she did not think students would be motivated to work as hard if they knew the chances of receiving an A were slim.

While the Princeton faculty passed the grade cap in 2004 by a 2 to 1 margin, Harvard faculty members remain divided on what to do about the issue.

History professor Steven E. Ozment said he gives out grades based on participation and student understanding of the material.

“When someone is excited, it is hard to say they shouldn’t get an A,” Ozment said. He estimates that about 80 percent of his students have earned A’s over the past four or five years, all of which were “fully deserved.”

In contrast, noted grade inflation opponent and government professor Harvey C.—or according to some students, “C-minus”—Mansfield ’53 said that Princeton’s grading cap may not be strict enough.

Grading inflation has continued because “parents like it, students like it, the faculty likes it, and the administration loves it,” Mansfield said.

To demonstrate his continuing opposition to grade inflation, Mansfield has a policy of giving two grades: the “private” grade he believes the student deserves and the “public” grade that goes on the student’s transcript.

“I wanted to still be against grade inflation but not punish my own students for taking the course,” Mansfield said.

Lawrence Buell, who served as the Dean of Undergraduate Education from 1992 to 1996, wrote in an e-mail that grade inflation has long been a topic of discussion at Harvard, but “there simply wasn’t enough faculty consensus around whether the drift toward higher average grades was inherently irresponsible, and even if so, what to do about it.”

However, the faculty did limit the percentage of students who receive Latin honors on their diploma after 91 percent of the Class of 2001 graduated with honors.

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