In defense of grading curves


Grading curves are more important than students realize. Meg O’Connor argues in her May 1 column “Grading curve should be no more” that professors should write easier exams in order to rid the system of these seemingly unnecessary grading scale adjustments, but I would argue that classrooms should adopt more rigorous tests and repeal the hard-set boundaries that define a grade A, B or C range.

Difficult exams produce a bell-curve distribution that shows the entire spectrum of scores in order to separate students based on their understanding and preparedness. From the average and the standard deviation, professors can fairly assign grading ranges that accurately describe where a student lies with respect to the class.

One or two students might “ace” the test, and one or two might earn just a few points on the test. The point is to quantitatively determine where each student is in relation to the others. This helps professors to identify those who need the most help and track the improvement of those who seek help as widely distributed scores will show more pronounced improvements. After all, if 20 students all had the same top score, how could you tell the difference between them?

Tricky exams also help the professor assess his or her own teaching style. How well did the students “get it” for one topic or another? How much do they really understand about the given material? Some exams allow students to just regurgitate facts, but does the student know enough about the facts to bring it all together and think critically? It can lead the professor to approach the subject matter differently in the next round and get the point across better.

If exams were made easier in order to accommodate the set grade ranges, not only would you lose an important piece of the bell curve that highlights the top learners, but you also set the study standard for those who just want to scrape by. How often have we heard the phrase “C’s get degrees”? The University of Minnesota is not a school that lets students waltz through their undergraduate career. As a nationally acclaimed university, professors need to set high standards that promote hard work and lots of studying so that all of our graduates are sought after and not just in the top-5 percent.

A strict adherence to any percentage range to determine grade cut-offs just doesn’t make sense. An English literature course cannot be graded in the same manner as a business class, a biology class or a math class. Professors are not trying to make our lives miserable with difficult exams, rather, they are trying to accurately assess our knowledge and test our determination to succeed. Remember, grades are not given, they are earned.