By Gary Deel, Ph.D., JD
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University
In part 1 of this article, I explained why I believe grading on a curve is the best overall strategy for assessing the scores on difficult exams. In this second article, I will articulate some of the most common arguments against curving, and why I think each of them ultimately fails under scrutiny.
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Claim #1: Teachers Are Perfect Arbiters of Fairness in Assessments
When it comes to using a curve, some instructors may think, “That’s not how I grade. If the students all do poorly, then so be it.”
This thinking seems to rely on the erroneous assumption that the professor is an objectively perfect arbiter of what is appropriately difficult for all students in all situations. Instructors who share this sentiment seem to think that if a student doesn’t do well on an exam, it’s because they didn’t prepare well enough. Period. End of discussion.
This perspective clearly exudes a level of hubris and a lack of accountability that is indefensible. Of course, we expect our students to put forth effort and apply a work ethic in their classes, as we should. But the fact of the matter is course designers and instructors absolutely have a role to play in student success.
If a large portion of a class does not succeed, a portion of that failure falls at the feet of the education professionals. We professors are leaders and guides to our students. We are responsible for introducing concepts, explaining phenomena, coaching, mentoring, testing knowledge, providing feedback and supporting the overall learning process. As such, if large numbers of students fail, we are obligated to own some of that failure.
This is not to say that every student’s failure is our fault. In every class, there will invariably be at least one or two students who do not perform well because of their own lack of discipline or effort. And assuming these outliers make up a small percentage of our classes, as they typically do, their poor performances should not in themselves trigger a curve intervention.
But if everyone does poorly, the designers of the assessment, the designers of the course and the professor facilitating the course must assume some responsibility for that. And that is exactly what a grade curve seeks to address.
Claim #2: If Faculty Curve Their Assessments, the Course and Curriculum Designers Won’t Know When Changes Need to Be Made
In many universities (and particularly in online schools), the professors who teach the courses may not be the same ones who design them. So how would the designers know when changes are needed?
I would argue that this is obviously a simple matter of communication. Just because professors grade on a curve as needed to maintain fairness in assessments does not mean they cannot report what they are seeing to the course designers. A simple email at the end of each term identifying the assessments and their raw averages (before curving) would be sufficient information for course designers to plan improvements.
Claim #3: If Students Consistently Score Poorly, They Will Feel Bad, Lose Confidence, or Become Bitter and Drop Out
The effect of the curving approach is largely dependent on how the curving method is introduced and explained to students. If the faculty doesn’t share the mechanics of the approach and the reasoning behind it to sufficiently articulate why it is the fairest and most beneficial strategy for grading, then, yes, they should expect to have depressed and disgruntled students.
But speaking from almost 10 years of using this method in my classes at multiple universities, I can say that students in general tend to appreciate the logic of grade curving. I regularly receive above-average student evaluation scores in the schools where I teach. I believe this is largely because my communication with my students adequately conveys why the curving approach is the fairest and most beneficial for them.
My father taught me a valuable lesson through a saying he would often repeat when I was growing up: “It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.” That old adage applies as well here as anywhere else.
Claim #4: Students Shouldn’t Be Competing with Each Other for Grades
It is true that, in a curving paradigm, the student who does the best in the class is mathematically guaranteed to earn an A, regardless of how poorly he or she did on the assessment objectively. In other words, “To the victor go the spoils.”
But ask yourself: In what aspect of our professional lives are we not competing with each other? In the job market? In sports? In achievements? In income and wealth? This is a natural part of 21st-century life in a capitalist society.
For example, consider the job hunt. While we might not like it, we generally don’t consider it unfair when someone else gets hired for the job that we wanted as long as we were given at least a legitimate opportunity to make our case for the position.
Such is life. Often, there is only one job available and that means we all can’t get it. But it’s important to note that grade curving is not a zero-sum game. It’s not as if there is only one A to give out in each class. Hypothetically, many students could earn As on a grade curve paradigm.
For that reason, I often encourage my colleagues who cite this argument to consider the inverse scenario. What happens when curves are not applied, and the students who earn the best grades on an assessment still fall short of an A? They’re left to confront the reality that they are the best that their class has to offer, yet they’re still not good enough to conquer the arbitrary standard that the instructor established as an A grade. This, I think, is clearly far less fair than the curve alternative.
Claim #5: Grade Curving Leads to Grade Inflation
As best I can tell, this criticism seems to come from either a misunderstanding or a misapplication of the math involved in the curve method. Grade curving need not create any inflation beyond that which the professor considers appropriate to maintain fairness in grading.
If an instructor agrees with the basic premise that the most talented students should be capable of earning the highest possible scores on assessments, then grading on a curve does not cause grade inflation. That’s because the curve is simply correcting for what otherwise would be unreasonable levels of difficulty in assessments, so the high score ends up as originally expected.
Provided the shift is applied to all scores consistently, the shape of the curve should not change. The number and size of standard deviations should remain the same across the scale.
Other methods of curving, such as targeting an average rather than a high score, could potentially cause a “crushing” of the grade curve against the upper limit of the scale. This could indeed cause grade inflation, but even then this is contingent upon the average score that is targeted.
Ironically, in my experience, professors who eschew curving tend to err on the side of caution with assessment difficulty. This, in turn, leads to true grade inflation.
Get Ahead of the Curve
It’s my opinion as an educator that curving is the optimal approach to grading. It ensures that all students can be challenged and pushed to their maximum potential. It rewards students for their hard work relative to the performance of the class as a whole.
And it counters inevitable imperfections in assessments and course design. But again, as with all things, the challenges arise not from what assessments are curved, but how they are curved, and how the grade curving philosophy is communicated to students.
In my first article, I shared a story about receiving a score of 14 out of 100 on my first law school exam. I fully admit that I was initially disappointed when I received that score.
But then my teacher explained to me how and why the curve would be applied. Once it was applied, I ended up with a respectable passing grade for that exam. More importantly, after I understood the reasoning for the difficult exams and the curve strategy, law school became an undertaking that I looked forward to each night, not in spite of the challenge but because of it.
Law school and the practice of grade curving taught me to take the chip off my shoulder and eat some humble pie. It taught me that I am not entitled to good grades simply because I showed up.
It taught me to accept that, when learning something new, we’re initially going to be inept at it. In the end, I graduated and passed two state bar exams, each on my first attempt.
All said and done, I can count very few experiences in my life that were more humbling and simultaneously character-building. And it was exactly because I learned to appreciate the effect of the challenge and the fairness of the curve.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a JD in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.
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