Curve Grading

I’m completely opposed to curve grading. It is nothing but a way for a lazy, incompetent teacher who is incapable of creating a good test to compensate for his or her lack of teaching skills by punishing the good students and rewarding the bad ones.

The defenders of curve grading are the same people who have dozens of arguments in defense of multiple choice assignments.

12 thoughts on “Curve Grading

  1. I don’t like curves either. In one math class in college I got a really bad grade on an exam. The professor berated me for getting the lowest grade in the class. I studied harder for the next exam and did a little better, but still got just seventy-something percent. To my surprise, that was marked as an A-. I asked if there was a mistake, and the professor told me that most of the other students had done much worse than I did on this exam, so he graded it on a curve so the others could all get Bs for their poor performance. And he wondered why I didn’t put so much effort into that class…


    1. “And he wondered why I didn’t put so much effort into that class…”

      – This is exactly what happens as a result of such practices. Good students lose enthusiasm while bad students lose all motivation to try harder.


  2. I confess to sometimes using curves, but, as I discussed in the other thread yesterday, I never use them to “punish” good students. I start with a reasonable grading scale, and if the test is harder than expected (i.e. I see students who did well on other assignments making mistakes that reflect an intelligent approach to the problem) I ease up the grading scale. I take that as evidence that my target grading scale (i.e. whatever percentage for an A, some other percentage for a B, etc.) was not properly calibrated to the difficulty of the test.


  3. I absolutely agree. I have had colleagues (all male) who have argued that one cannot measure anything except by comparing it to something else, and that it is therefore OK that a test score which would have been a D last year is an A this year, or vice versa, because the class average performance was so different the two different years. I think this is not only a bad teaching practice, it is immoral.

    I remember another male colleague saying once some years ago that a class he was teaching (in history) had done extraordinarily well on a test. He then said, “It won’t do them any good, of course; the top ten percent will still get A’s and the bottom ten percent will get F’s, as usual. But they do seem to be a really good class.” His class had about 400 students and were evaluated solely by multiple choice tests.


    1. I also think it’s immoral and teaches a wrong lesson. Not everything is relative, and the students need to know that. There is nothing relative about the standards of scholarship. My independent researchers, for instance, are doing an extremely poor job this year. But if that means I will have to fail most of them, this is what I will do. I know what a good essay should be like, and until they produce it, they will not graduate.


  4. It punishes good students in unforeseen ways too. I have taken many many classes that abuse curves, (it’s common practice at my institution) and the students who really want to learn feel discouraged because they are given a test they will do poorly on no matter how hard they try. This doesn’t bother students who are only concerned with grades, but for those of us who are trying to master the material and use the test to learn more and get actual feedback as to what we need to work on, these tests are psychological damaging experiences.

    I’m in a Spanish class that curves tests (¡qué horror!) and the only way they can get the average on these tests to a 70 something is to test material that isn’t in the book and hasn’t been taught in class. I’ve gone to my teacher in tears trying to explain that I want to learn Spanish so badly, and that I study what is given to me until I’m blue in the face but the given materials aren’t sufficient, but he doesn’t care. Well, some students got A’s on the exam. Yes, some students already know everything this class purports to teach and should be in a more difficult class, but are only interested in an easy A, thank you for rewarding those students at my expense!


    1. I knwo exactly what you mean! One of my previous universities once tried to force me to curve my Spanish Intermediate course. I refused. So the administration changed the grades without even consulting me! Of course, the students demanded an explanation and I had no idea what to tell people who got As on every assignment and ended up with a B in the course because of the curve. This was supposedly done to make the instruction more rigorous.

      Curiously, that department doesn’t exist any longer.


  5. Agreed.

    I realize that teaching in a secondary school isn’t the same as teaching at the university level. That said, grading in my secondary course is standards-based in part because it is one class in a sequence. The teachers who teach the next level up from my course need to know that a grade of, say, 75% is in reference to the articulated skills and objectives of the course and not, “Hey, what this kid knows is about average compared to the other people who took this class.”


  6. Adjusting the grade if you give the same assignment every year is pretty much indefensible. But I’ve never taken a course that reuses exams. My experience with curve grading has been pretty much always positive. It does however require a skilled proffesor who sets the grade to match the skill of the class rather than some arbitrary standard (10% As etc)


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