Aberrant Maia

Abolish The Grade Curve!

Picture of a grade curve

I always thought that the grade a student works for is the grade a student receives but boy, was I wrong! Not too long ago, I began to hear about grading on the curve and from what I gleaned, it sounded ludicrous to me. However, I do not like to fully form opinions on issues until I have researched and weighed both sides of an argument. So, I went down the spiral road of understanding what grading on the curve means, its effect on students, and then formulate my opinion on the matter.

Grading on the curve is when scores are adjusted to reflect a normal distribution curve. This curve has most of the data in the middle or mean, and a few grades lie outside the curve. Under normal circumstances, the grade curve results in 68% of students getting a C, 13.6% receiving a B and the same percentage receiving a D, 2.1% receiving an A and that same proportion receiving an F.[1]

Several methods can be employed to achieve this grade curve. One is to increase or decrease students’ grades by the same number of points. For example, a teacher can decide to increase or decrease each students’ scores by 20 points. Another way of grading on the curve is to bump the highest grade to 100%. Let us say the highest grade on a test was 89%. The teacher would bump that grade to 100% by adding 11% to that student’s score. Consequently, the percentage added to the highest student’s score becomes the increased portion to bump each student’s grade, in this case, it would be 11%. A teacher could also take the square root of a test percentage and make it a new grade. [1] Oh, and how could I forget. Some may strictly follow the normal distribution curve and allocate a specific number of people to achieve a particular grade. If only 2.1% of a 100 person class (roughly 2 people) are expected to get an A, but more than 2 people get an A, the teacher can rank and pick only two people to receive the A grade so that the curve is maintained.

You are probably wondering why universities and institutions would want to adopt such a grading system. I was curious as well, so I discovered some reasons for using this grading technique.

Curved grading is said to prevent grade inflation. Suppose you have a class of 100 students and 90 of those students get an A. With most students achieving an A, it then seems as if the A grade has been ‘devalued.’ An A, usually reserved for excellent work becomes a cheapened grade if a greater proportion of the class receives this grade. [1]

It can also be argued that this method helps in analyzing tests because the test results of students which show a normal distribution curve indicate a good test design. As per the curvature, it means that most students understood a significant amount of the task; then there were a few outstanding students and some few students who did not meet the task’s requirements. This is usually the expected norm of students’ performance.

Further proponents of the grade curve argue that scores based on a curve increase students’ competitiveness and motivate them to work and learn. Imagine a class where only a few students can attain an A, competition between peers would be significantly heightened to achieve that grade.

Also, the grade curve can protect students from partial teachers: instructors who do not want to give students a low grade because they are familiar with their students or teachers who are exceptionally harsh in marking and tend to give lower grades. The curvature forces the teacher to grade in a more distributive manner.[2]

So, is it all rosy in the area of grading on the curve? No, it is not.

Grading on the curve forces class performance to conform to a pre-determined distribution with the static belief that even under favourable circumstances, some students should fail, only a few should succeed, and the majority should be merely average.[3] However, not all classes are the same, and not all classes follow this pattern,[4] and it is unfair to mould a performance into such a manner when it is simply not the case.

Also, strictly following this grading policy limits the number of students who will achieve high grades. Let us take this scenario: In a particular class, student X and student Y are known to consistently achieve high grades in assignments. If a grade curve should only allow 2 persons to acquire an A, this can act as a disincentive to the other students. These other students would believe that only student X and student Y would get an A, so why bother? And I do not think that academic institutions would want their students to not put in their all in their academic endeavours.

And the ironic aspect of this grading, is that in an effort to fight grade inflation, grade deflation is birthed. [5] That is forced grading along the curve will ensure that some grades are lowered, which would not reflect a student’s effort and academic achievement.

Moreover, grading along a curve does not reflect much of a teacher’s performance. Take the case where students’ actual grades are published, and 80% of students receive an A. That should be an opportunity for further study. Was the test easy? Is it an indication that the students understand the course? Was the marking lenient? Are there external factors influencing the grade like students forming study groups, or was there exam malpractice? I think these are questions that provide answers that can help shape academic institutions’ learning and teaching experience instead of relying on a grade curvature. Flipping the scenario, 80% of students receiving less than a D can provoke equally serious questions: Was this a difficult test? Is the lecturer unable to communicate effectively with students? Are external factors like stress impacting the work performance of students? These are the more difficult questions that do not show up when the curvature grading is the go-to method.

Now, what do I think? If you already caught me leaning towards the disadvantages of this policy, you guessed right. However, let me break down my thoughts.

First, I view grades as an award for students’ academic performance.[6] They are not the only way of evaluating academic performance, but it is one of the options. So if a grading system is used, it should be in proportion to a student’s academic achievements. And how that is evaluated is usually outlined in the syllabus of a particular course and ideally should cut across different aspects of a student’s performance in that course. Once those are weighted according to the guidelines, a student should receive the grade they deserve.

Moreover, I believe grades do play a significant role. This is not the blog post for determining the importance of grades, but I cannot deny that grades play a pivotal role in some circumstances. Some competitive internships have a grade cut off point which eliminates students before they even get a chance to prove their worth. The dean’s list is collated based on grades. Grades are significant for those who want to undertake a graduate program. Universities factor in their honorific designations and prizes distributed during class graduations.[6] So if grades play such an important role, why should a student’s grade be deflated or inflated simply because they must fit a curve?

This is my take: abolish the grade curve and adopt absolute grading. Absolute grading is using a pre-established standard to assign grades to students. So, an A+ could be 85% and above, an A is 80-84%, and so on. This way, whatever score a student gets is translated into the grade. This differs from the grading curve, which is a comparative approach. That method does not only take a person’s grades into account but takes it in comparison to the performance of other students and gets adjusted when it deviates from the norm. And I say no, do not look to other students’ performance to determine a student’s grade. If a student gets an A, let it be an A. If it is a B, let it be a B. And if the pattern that shows up raises questions, let us collaborate and find ways to improve teaching and learning while showing the true reflection of students’ academic performance.

As it stands, the curved grades do not indicate how well a teacher taught or how much a student learned, but absolute grading may give us more insight into that. [7]

Therefore, abolish the grade curve!


[1] Roell, K. (2019, July 22). What Is Grading on a Curve? Retrieved from ThoughtCo.: https://www.thoughtco.com/grading-on-a-curve-3212063

[2] Volokh, E. (2015, February 9). In praise of grading on a curve. Retrieved from The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/02/09/in-praise-of-grading-on-a-curve/

[3] Burke, T. (2012, August 23). Grading on the Curve Is Always a Bad Idea. Retrieved from Easily Distracted: https://blogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/blog/2012/08/23/grading-on-the-curve-is-always-a-bad-idea/

[4] Aleamoni, L. M. (1979). Why Is Grading Difficult? NACTA Journal, 7-8.

[5] Grant, A. (2015, September 10). Why We Should Stop Grading Students on a Curve. Retrieved from The New York Time: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/11/opinion/sunday/why-we-should-stop-grading-students-on-a-curve.html

[6] Knapp, C. (2007). Assessing Grading. Public Affairs Quarterly, 275-294.

[7] Michaels, J. W. (1976). A Simple View of the Grading Issue. Teaching Sociology, 198-203.

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