Overton: The immorality of the grading curve

BY JON OVERTON | JULY 31, 2014 5:00 AM

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When your class is graded on a curve, as has been the status quo throughout the history of higher and secondary education, your grade depends more or less on how well everyone else does.

However, the Des Moines Public School system has recently adopted a new system called standards-based grading that will go into effect this coming school year. The point is not to grade students in relation to their classmates but based on how well they understand the course material. Part of this new system involves eliminating the practice of grading on a curve.

The University of Iowa and other institutions of higher learning around the country would be well advised to stop recommending or requiring the use of grading curves, seeing as they’re among the least ethical tools an instructor can use.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about the curves that help everyone and raise the water so all boats rise, so to speak. When I use the word “curve,” I mean when instructors force all students’ grades in a class to fit a specific distribution so that there are a specific number of As, Bs, Cs, Ds, and Fs.

First off, that whole system guarantees that some students will fail the class, regardless of everyone else’s ability or interest in the class. Sure, some people in large enough classes will probably fail, but it’s a matter of principle. The key point is that the system is guaranteeing that some people will fail.

Everyone could theoretically get an A with a standard 90-80-70-60 style setup but not with a curve.
This grading scheme does not accurately reflect how much course material students learned. Its purpose is to weed people out.

If you belong to a higher social class, all your life it’s been a given that you’re going to college. A bad grade will sting, but it’s probably not going to completely derail your college career. But if you’re from a lower social class that puts less emphasis on getting a college degree, a bad grade could lead a student to question whether he or she is cut out for higher education, and ultimately drop out.

This partly explains the Century Foundation’s finding that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to graduate than wealthy students who get the same SAT scores. After one or two bad experiences, poorer students feel much more threatened and far less certain that they belong at a college or university.

So it’s especially worrisome that the UI actually endorses such policies. The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Tippie College of Business both recommend that the grading distribution for classes fit a specific curve with all the necessary caveats that emphasize it’s just a recommendation, not necessarily a requirement.

But the problem is that they’re prescribing a very precise distribution, which are explicitly intended to be guidelines for new faculty such as adjunct and assistant professors. These are extremely competitive jobs, especially in the humanities. Adjuncts typically have brief contracts that could expire on short notice, so their job security is minimal, and assistant professors don’t have tenure.

Sure, faculty don’t have to follow official recommendations, but if you’re a newbie and you’re in a tough job market, you’ll probably feel a lot of pressure to adhere as rigidly to recommendations, rules, whatever, so long as it improves your job security.

Although they’re “just” recommendations, official grade-distribution policies can still put a lot of pressure on stressed-out adjunct and assistant professors to implement the extremely unfair grading system that automatically screws over some students and reinforces class barriers.

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