Grading – the curve

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.

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7 Comments

  1. The issue of fairness in grading is a tricky one. There are diverse perspectives on what constitutes a fair grade but all of these perspectives seem quite stable. That is, people’s minds about fair grinds seem almost impossible to change.
    An advantage of bell-style curves is that (among those who have been enculturated into thinking “normal distributions” are an accurate description of the whole world) they look fair. The same is said about multiple-choice questions, however unfair some of them may be as an assessment of learning.
    I’m only half-joking when I say that students’ sense of fairness in grading is that it’s only fair when they get high grades. I’ve had a number of students who had a heightened “sense of entitlement” and those are typically the students who are most vocal about grade fairness (if they get lower grades than they feel they deserve, by virtue of being “good students”). I haven’t used it in class, yet, but I think the gym analogy can help students understand what is involved in the learning process.
    Of course, not all of my students complained about low grades. In fact, I’ve had several students who expressed surprise at getting higher grades than they expected. One of them was diagnosed as having a learning disability but gave me work which corresponded to what I wanted. It’s possible that other students might think it was unfair for her to get a high grade but this was at an institution where students are rather cooperative and non-competitive.
    Actually, curve-grading seems related to the “independence training” concept from early psychological anthropology. It’s an Old School concept, but it does seem to work in helping people to think about the difference been cooperation and competition.

    BTW, thanks for the link to the “helicopter parent” entry. This term hasn’t been part of my active vocabulary but it’s quite helpful. I’ve been coming to terms with these parents and, I must say, it’s a kind of culture shock, for me. “Parents, these days…”

  2. My grade complaint this semester came from a sophomore who said I was of course entitled to my opinion of his degree of mastery of the subject, but that he knew better what his actual degree of mastery was and how he compared to the rest of the class.

  3. Cero, what a jerk. I get my share of entitled students, and also quite a few who aren’t exactly entitled but have no clear understanding of the assessment culture of the academy and have been told not to take crap from anyone. As we well know some students will also test any perceived weakness – gender, race, age, status, etc. to see if they can find leverage to get what they think they need.

    All of it makes me sad. So much energy wasted, from my perspective. I have lots to teach them, and they me; the grade games short-circuit that process by trying to jump to the outcome without putting in the gym time, as Enkerli puts it.

  4. Alexandre, re: learning disabilities and what we’re looking for, Ira Socol does great work sorting all that out over at SpeEdChange. Worth a look.

    Stimulated by your comment I’ve also belatedly linked back above to my own earlier post on grading, which you know, “So You Think You Can Write a Paper.” As I said there, I think the big national talent shows are a mixed bag from an assessment perspective. “American Idol” is basically a popularity contest, as many of our students think our classes are. But the dancing shows get down to actual skill pretty quickly, then from skill to mastery. This is what so many ‘entitled’ students have trouble processing – that at our level, a solidly skillful paper is worth no more than an honest, admirable B. What’s needed to get to the top level is a more comprehensive, engaged and creative mastery.

  5. Alexandre, that’s a great point about the stability of perspectives on ‘fair grades’. I suspect that maps pretty directly onto a whole series of cognitive and emotional dispositions in relation to linearity, complexity, certainty and ambiguity.

    A great teaching experience for me, Ivan Kovacs’ Human Development program at CSU-Hayward was designed to develop students’ humanity by getting them comfortable with complexity and ambiguity, on the theory that these characterize real substantive human relations. It worked pretty well but some students were very well defended against the lesson, and so were some of the faculty.

  6. “develop students’ humanity by getting them comfortable with complexity and ambiguity, on the theory that these characterize real substantive human relations”

    Aha, now here’s a good reason to teach literature.

  7. Pingback: When failure is an option « Dead Voles

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