Should colleges use forced curves?

According to a recent survey 45-55% of grades given at Ivy League college are A’s. From my own experiences polling friends at other schools the situation is not much different at other schools (it might even be worse). If schools are going to hand out A’s like this why don’t they just go to pass/fail? I think schools need to set a forced curve (like most top law schools) so grades can have meaning again. I know it might be hard on a lot of students who are used to getting top marks their whole career but grades need to mean something. I don’t care where the curve is set. Schools can make it a C, B-, B, or whatever they want. The curve can also create an environment that is too competitive, but students are always going to be competing with each other. However, they have to force professors to stick to the curve. This will allow employers and graduate schools to have a better understanding of the performance of students.

Another benefit would be uniformity in grading policies by professors. As it stands now student X and student Y can take the same class from different professors and receive very different grades for a similar performance. It would be much better to use a curve that will be uniform throughout the department.

I know this may not work as well in some of the smaller classes. I had a class in college with only two other students. Situations like this might cause problems, but schools can give professors better guidelines on grading and use departmental curves.

Finally, I don’t think the curve should be used to force students to get a failing grade or force a certain number of students to “flunk out”.

So, what does everyone think? Should colleges begin to use forced curves?

Interesting topic. I remember reading a letter in The New York Times last week regarding grading on a curve, though I don’t remember if it was in response to the linked article. The man that wrote the letter (a professor from somewhere) pointed out that the knowledge gained from a course, and what people learn isn’t finite. If someone gets scores 100% for an A+, that doesn’t mean that someone didn’t learn anything because another student accumulated all the available knowledge in the class and didn’t leave anything for the rest of the students in the class.

I don’t think grading on a curve is the answer, but I do think grade inflation exists, and is a real problem. Take a look at the thread in MPSIMS where people listed their grades. I know that people on the SDMB are intelligent, but there were a lot of “A’s” listed.

This semester I had an especially rigorous critical theory course with a very demanding professor. He was a tough grader, and had much higher expectations than I have encountered in other classes. I knew it would be difficult when I signed up for the class, and I did like the intensity of the class, but I couldn’t help but worry that a “B” or a “C” which was hard earned, would be an “A” in most other classes. (I don’t have my final grade for the course yet.) The “B” or “C” would show up on the transcript, but without a note on the difficulty of the course.

My personal opinion is that the professors are the ones that need to take back the grading scale. I know a lot of people that expect an “A” as long as they show up, go through the motions, recite what’s in the text, and that’s it. No more is expected of them, and they don’t want to do anything else. If professors don’t feel like they have to give “A’s” to every student for less than exceptional work, then I think that could be a step towards solving the problem. Right now, if you want to be able to go to graduate school, and maybe this is just a misperception on my part, but if you want to go to grad school, you have to have those inflated grades to compete, because the grade inflation is going on everywhere.

Another contributing factor, is the cost of attending college. Some people feel they have to work, or really are forced to work, and they don’t have the time to study for classes.

To sum it up: Don’t grade on a curve, but make earning an “A” mean something. Don’t give out “A’s” unless a student has gone beyond what is just considered acceptable.

I don’t understand this logic. When I was in school, a “C” grade was what was considered acceptable. Going somewhat beyond acceptable got you a “B” grade. Going far beyond acceptable got you an “A” grade. Putting this numerically, a 90-100 score was “A” work, 80-89 “B” work, 70-79 “C” work, 60-69 “D” work and anything less was an “F”.

However, in today’s age where few are willing to take responsibility for their actions, where too many have been instilled with a false sense of entitlement by their parents or society, where teachers feel physically threatened, where parents intervene to change their children’s grades, where SAT’s and similar tests have been made simpler so more people get higher scores and where higher grades and scores translate into more money for a school, it is difficult to grade people honestly and accurately. So what happens is that grades start being ignored or given less weight in say, a hiring or promotion decision. I’ve read that more and more companies are giving their own tests at hiring because of the recognition of grade escalation.

There has to be some sort of curve for grades to be meaningful. I’d say that it makes sense that no more than 10% of the people in a class should get an A. Perhaps 10-15% should be considered at the “B” level, the next 15% at the “C” level, and so on. If more people fit into a grade category, then the class or professor is too easy and adjustments need to be made to increase the difficulty. And vice-versa if not enough make the grade.

Sometimes the schools respond to grade inflation by raising the minimum GPA needed to stay in the program, rather than forcing the professors to center their grade distributions around “C” rather than “B” or “A”. Two years ago one of my friends wrote in an e-mail:

The idea in that article was that that all courses will be normed: i.e. if I grade on a scale of A-B, and another prof grades on a C-F scale, his “C” student would get the same grade as my “A” student.

I think this is a fabulous idea. One thing that’s always bothered me about grading is that some profs see grades as a way to get good student-evals and be popular, while others, like me, who see them as a way to send a strong message to students who aren’t working hard enough (and to other students that they’ve done terrific work), view grades as a communication tool.

One of my colleagues gives out all A’s all the time, and then says he’s a fabulous teacher because his students do so well in his courses because he’s so fabulous, just look at their grades, etc. Meanwhile, when I get his students in my classes the next semester, they can’t write and they’re furious that they’re not getting A’s from me. When I complain what do you I hear from him? That’s right—I must not be a very good teacher because --well, just look at my students’ low grades.

A big problem with hoping professors will fix this problem is that professors have a vested interest in their students succeeding. As already noted by pseudotriton ruber ruber there are professors who increase their students grades to show what a great teacher they are.

I’m not saying that a forced curve is totally fair. I think in some situations it can casuse students to receive grades that do not reflect a student’s efforts and perormance in a course. However, by comparing students to each a judgement can be made as to which students’ performances were truly exceptional, which were merely average, and which were below average.

Why is this a problem? Did the professor give you a C for a term paper you worked on all semester while the hot cheerleader that gives good blowjobs turned in a coloring book and got an A?

Yeah, grade inflation is rampant. Yeah, it might cost you a bit in the job search. But you know what? Morons weed themselves out. It doesn’t take a genius to see that the guy drooling all over himself is an idiot, even if he did get a 4.0. Getting the degree is the important thing. And I would know, because I can’t even get the time of day from anyone.

Truth is, for the estimated $30,000 and 4 years I’m gonna have to spend getting my damn degree, they should just save me the time and hand me the diploma. It’s not like the grades matter anyway.

I have a slightly different view of grade inflation, because I went to a school where the problem was grade deflation. Most of the applicants had applied to another “big name school” where you were assured of a Gentleman’s A. Anyone at our school had probably been rejected from at least one Ivy League school. A cynical joke on the first day was “Hi, welcome to Princeton. I’m the A Fairy.” (MANY of us were rejected from Princeton). However, I came to learn that a school’s exclusivity, breeding, or reputation for being a “classy” school doesn’t mean much.

Yeah, those Ivy League schools inflate their grades, but in the job market I’ll be poking around in, everyone knows that and takes it into account. A fellow alum (and fellow Doper) actually got an e-mail from someone who does hiring – and I’m drifting into FOAF territory here – that said “Yeah, if we want someone who will show up, do the bare minimum, schmooze with the client, and look good in a suit, we hire a Harvard or Yale grad. If we want someone who will get the job done, damn the cost in blood or sweat, and still come in under budget and on schedule – we hire a grad from {Jurph’s alma mater}.”

Turns out that a “B” from my school has more merit in some employees’ eyes than an “A” from anywhere in New England (with the possible exception of MIT). So don’t worry about norming grades – your school has its own reputation, and that does a lot of the norming for you.

Aside to Airman Doors: are you getting a degree as a step towards commissioning?

employers’ – damn my lazy fingers.

Couple of points:

When I was in graduate school, I taught introductory courses as a graduate instructor. Per our department, we were required to maintain an overall grading curve of C/C- for the entire class. This was to ensure consistency in grading for all the graduate instructors, and sent a message to all students who took the introductory courses taught by graduate instructors that grading was uniform. So some students, in normal circumstances, might have gotten a B+ instead of an A- due to the policy. Fortunately, in my case, there weren’t too many instances of students who did quality work receive an undeserving grade.

I found out about the strictness of this policy when I decided one quarter to forego the gidelines (I ended up at the end of the quarter with more students that received A’s and B’s). The faculty person responsible in monitoring graduate instructor grading went ballistic - I almost didn’t get recommended again to teach courses. So at least at some institutions (for certain classes and for graduate instructors), grading curve standards are in place.

Of course, full-time professors has their own grading policies that accorded with the universities policies. So they could assign whatever grades they liked.

With regards to graduate school grades, anyone who has ever been to graduate school will tell you that grades are inflated and don’t really mean too much (Note: this does not include medical or law school). Receiving a B- for a course in graduate school is equivalent to a D or F. Usually these types of grade are given to students as a warning that they need to get their act together or they will be forced to leave. If you get more than a couple, then it’s a clear sign that your professors feel you don’t belong in graduate school. YMMV, depending on the institution and graduate school.

The grade inflation for graduate courses does have a certain logic to it. Where I went to school, graduate students worked as instructors or research assistants. If you were to apply a strict grading curve for all students, it could affect whether, for example, Professor A had a research assistant for the remaining year (if Professor B flunked Professor A’s student in a course and that student was forced to leave graduate school). Which could cause complications within the department. Not too mention how it affects the overall reputation of the department (“gosh, they keep admitting all these lousy grad students - maybe we in the administration should get rid of the department”).

Again, anyone who has ever been to graduete school can attest to the political and “turf protective” nature of acedemia. Which is ironic, to some degree, in the complaints that academia is “too liberal”. That may be true for certain disciplines and certain institutions with regards to ideas. But in practice - academia is just a conservative and bureaucratic as the largest corporation. IMHO, of course.

If you mean promoted to management, I’m with you.

Do you realize you just assigned D’s or worse to well over half the class?

I don’t believe in grading on a curve, because I believe students’ grades should reflect how much they know or the objective quality of their work, not how they compared to the other students who happened to take the class. In a class of slackers or numbskulls where nobody has a clue at the end of the semester, nobody should get an A or a B. In a class of geniuses or hard workers who all demonstrate complete mastery of the course material, they all should get an A.

Curves can work the other way as well. If professors are forced to award a fixed percentage of a class a certain letter grade (say A=10%, B=20% C=50% etc.). then everyone in the class could perform at the level of a lazy dimwit, yet 10% would still recieve 'A’s! That doesn’t sound good.

Although, in my case I did quite well in university thanks to curved grading and the fact that many of my classmates were more interested in the Greek system than in their studies. I didn’t do much work at all but sailed through with 'A’s. Grade inflation indeed.

My father was a English professor. At one point I attended the university he taught at (but never had him as a teacher). He had a HORRIBLE reputation for being a tough, tough grader. Many students I knew loathed having to take his courses. I talked to him about it: he simply refused to inflate grades. The students he was giving D’s and F’s to just weren’t doing or understanding the course-work. He also expressed doubts that many of these kids should even be in a university. I had other professors who felt this way and said so out loud in class.

I happen to agree with them. At what point did 90% of the high school graduate population “deserve” to attend a university? Only 10% or so are actually cut out for it. The rest should be at a vocational business school where they can learn about blindly making money, but aren’t forced to take those pesky, “worthless” humanities courses that they all bitch about . Hell, that “touchy-feely” humanities shit" only turns kids into liberals anyway. :rolleyes:

This is where admissions should come into things. There [b[never** should be a class of numbskulls unless it a numbskull school like Arizona State. :slight_smile: Seriously, the students in a class should be people who are qualified to be at the college. Of course there are colleges that basically have open admissions but I don’t think we need to worry about these schools as most people see them nothing more degree selling institutions.

Like it or not grades are a way to measure students’ performances against each other, if we allow a class to all receive A’s we can’t know which students are the really special ones. Also a genius is a really rare person. I don’t think you are likely to find classes that are full of geniuses, unless you use a low standard for genius like MENSA. And even if you have a class of geniuses you still going to have the standouts who display a better grasp of the material. If we allow all smart and hard-working students to receive A’s we have no reliable way to compare their knowledge of the material.

By the way if I was going to set the curve I would set it like this:

A+ - 1-2%
A - 3-4%
A- - 5%
B+ - 20%
B - 40%
B- - 20%
C+ - 5%
C - 3-4%
C- - 1-2%

There would a small amount of flexibility to the numbers for students who give extremely poor performances, but in no situation should the percentage for a grade exceed the numbers listed above. However, admissions should provide for a class of students who meet the standards necessary to not receive grades lower than C-.

The problem with grades is they have no intrinsic value. Only the perception of future employers, or programs, gives them value. Add to this that grades are assigned by subjective means - occasionally based on objective information - and you get a fairly meaningless system.

Because students want grades they attempt to procure grades, sometimes at the expense of learning the material. Cheating is rampant in universities. The causes of grade inflation still exist. By creating a system of arbitrary rewards the education system has produced students that seek these rewards.

Making grades mean something requires rethinking grading and education policy. I agree that high education is suffering because it is now assumed that you will have a college degree to function in a job. This of course has produced the brain farm high schools that focus on grooming students for college admission.

I don’t think that minor tweaks will do any good. Any tweak will cause as many problems as it solves, which will result in reverting to the current system or equally ineffective subsequent tweaks.

Yes, I didn’t do a very good job of saying what I wanted to say. Let me try again.

When I was referring to a curve, I wanted the quality of work to be the basis of the curve. So whatever constitutes “A” work would still be the top 10% of the universe of possible work, and the same for the other grades and numbers I used.

So for instance, if 60% of the class is doing “A” work, then the standard curve of work needs to be adjusted (in other words, the work/test threshold required to attain an “A” needs to be made more difficult until only 10% of the people can attain it).