Interesting old thread popped back up at Lumpenprofessoriat on grading on the curve. The original post offers an elegant way of calculating a curve. Recently, a mom commented with questions about whether her kid was being graded fairly by a high school physics teacher.
Mass higher ed has done its marketing well. The idea that education really matters for life chances has percolated down to many families at this point. Grades sort the levels of accomplishment, so of course grades are what matter. Higher grades must be good. Intervention may be needed to make sure Junior is getting the best grade possible.
But what do grades mean? It’s obvious, I hope, that top grades are meaningless if everyone gets them — unless there’s some very, very dense evidence that excellence has been achieved across the board. Princeton and Harvard (“where the best students in the country get the worst education in the country”) may be able to give everyone A’s on this basis, but most schools can’t. Sorting has to happen. A curve, in particular, starts with the assumption that everyone is not and cannot be excellent. (This is why I think they’re immoral.) You can tweak a curve to get higher or lower distributions, but the point of it is to sort student performances into bad, fair, good, better and best.
As I said over at Lumpenprofessoriat, any competent teacher can sort student performances into bad, fair, good, better and best. If you can’t trust a teacher to do that, ‘fairness’ is the least of your worries. The grading system, whatever it is, is just a pass-through for the evaluative expertise of the teacher. After a whole semester of work and interaction I should – and do – know where a particular student ranks in relation to standards and other students. This is every teacher’s professional responsibility, whether we do it directly or invent a fiddly system to do it for us.
I feel for any parent who cares about their baby’s success. Sometimes mismatches, miscommunications or injustices do occur, and some (self!) advocacy is appropriate. But mostly what’s happening is pretty ordinary, in a this-is-the-rest-of-your-life kind of way. So if a student can’t distinguish her- or himself in a high school or college class, and needs parental intervention to engineer some kind of emotional figleaf, I’m not impressed with their long term life chances. Get smarter, work harder. Eventually the hands of consequence must caress us all — unless when someone hires your kid, you’ll be coming to work with them too.
UPDATE: Ironic karma moment – just opened my school email and found a grade appeal from a student accompanied by separate emails from both parents. If I got it wrong I’ll change it. If I got it right, we’ll see how much my teacherly expertise is worth to various audiences.