- Sometimes I draft a hard exam and sometimes an easy one. I often can’t tell which is which, since they’re all easy to me — I know the material, after all! So something might look to me like a C exam rather than a B- exam not because this student is unusually bad, but because the exam was just harder than ones from previous years. (I write a new exam each year, rather than reusing questions.)
- Even setting the previous factor aside, I’ve been in teaching for 21 years now — but many professors are new, and don’t even have the data points that I have. In some areas, such as legal writing, the typical teacher has even less experience. Where are they going to get the distinction between A-s and B+s?
- Perhaps the curve is unfair to a class that consists of unusually strong students — but the absence of a curve is unfair to a class that has an unusually harsh professor (which includes a class that has a professor who grades in a way that you see as fair, but that is harsh compared to other unusually lenient professors). And the variation in class strength, especially classes of 50-100 students — the size of most non-seminar classes — is likely to be much less than variation in professor harshness.
- The pressures for grade inflation are quite real, and flow from basic human nature: Most teachers don’t like giving students low grades, especially once they’ve gotten to know their students relatively well. When I have small classes that can’t be curved as easily (since there are so few data points that there’s a higher chance that the class is unusually strong or weak), I feel this pressure myself, even if the class is still blind-graded. And of course if a professor is known for resisting this pressure, then fewer and fewer students will end up taking his class.
- Some people argue that the curve makes things harder for students to get jobs, but I don’t think that’s right. To be sure, a curve that’s harder than the curve at other comparable schools might make things harder for students, since employers might erroneously think that someone with a B+ average at school 1 has done worse than someone with an A- average at school 2, even if both grades are (say) at the 70th percentile in each school, and the difference is just a result of different curves. But that’s a reason to deliberately align the curves with your competitors, which in my experience law schools tend to do, not to abolish the curve (which could likewise lead to differences in median among schools because of differences in grading cultures). Indeed, a curve makes it easier to make sure that the median grade at your school is comparable to the median grade at competitors schools.
February 9, 2015 at 12:44 PM EST