What's wrong with grading on a curve?


A while back, I interviewed University of Minnesota Ph.D. student Trent Kays to get his opinion on massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

His voice is back — in USA Today, this time on his dislike of the grading curve:

“… The grading curve is symptomatic of insignificant pedagogical training. In the 21st century, the curve either makes instructors willing accomplices or reluctant participants. It artificially inflates or deflates grades for a select group of students, and while I find the current grading system ludicrous, no student deserves to have his or her grades artificially altered to satisfy a statistical model.

What’s an A anyway? What does that even mean? Outside of many higher education contexts, it means nothing. Grades are completely situational, while assessment is something that encourages continual growth and learning.

Why do we continue to abide this system? Is it because grades and assessment are often so meshed together that we assume they must be the same? I hate to see students punished over trivial things such as wholly subjective letter grades. Higher education is better than that, or it can be better than that. The primary focus of college should be to learn, explore, and fail or succeed while students work toward a solid idea of what they want to do with their lives.”


You can read his full essay here.


  • MnProf

    Glad to hear a student weigh in on this.  I would just add that grade inflation is far more likely to result from a curve than deflation for a variety of reasons, most of them having little to do with what students have actually learned.  In a perfect system, grades would actually be a dependable measure of learning by the student, with a C being “average” and so on.  A “gentleman’s C” used to be a way for trust fund brats to slide through the Ivy League schools, but these days a D is as bad as an F (worse in some cases), and C marks the absolute bottom level of acceptability for the students who will then try to pull rank on the teacher’s grading “authority” in all kinds of imaginative ways.  The failure of the letter grade system is a major reason for the growing demands for “accountability” in higher ed.