Upper limit for grades?

I was just reading FMyLife and I came across this:

Today, the grades for one of my courses were released. The class average was higher than that which the department allowed, so the professor had to scale everyone’s marks down to meet the policy. I ended up failing because my class was too smart.

Do colleges actually have upper limits for grades? Why the hell for? What’s the point in lowering a student’s grade because they’re doing too well?

I, for one, have never heard of this. It would get especially absurd when you consider that there are some very small classes in college. I’ve been in seminars that, while well-attended, officially only had one person signed up.

I’ve seen jokes about it, like when we’ve had exactly two students sign up, saying that one had to pass and one had to fail, but nobody’s ever taken it as anything but a joke.

In large classes, it’s pretty common for grades to be assigned relative to the rest of the class, and it’s not all that uncommon for introductory classes in high-demand programs to have a quota on the number of As or Bs they can give. Regardless of the exact system, there’s no way this person could have failed unless they were one of the worst-performing students in the class.

I had an English professor who graded on a bell curve. It sucked. I dropped the class the first week and signed on with someone who was more reasonable.

Supposedly it’s a way to prevent grade inflation by “forcing” some students to fail every class every term.

I had this happen with a statistics class I took. Basically, the administration usually invokes this if the marks are seriously out of whack. For example, in an “Introduction to Statistics” for business and biological siciences (i.e. not for math or physics, but for accounting etc.) the odds that everyone is so clever that the average mark exceeds 80% or A-minus (what’s that in today’s phoney grades - 3.75?) is unlikely. It probably means the prof did not make the test challenging enough. The administration will either tell the prof to bell curve or do it for him if he won’t. Otherwise, a 4.0 means nothing except what each prof felt like it meant one day. But it usually does not kick in unless the marks are way out of whack from the norm.

That does not mean profs can’t and don’t bell the marks on their own to avoid attracting the attention of the administration. Usually this is done by giving very tough assignements and tests, then belling up so nobody complains. If he belled you down, he was a lazy prof.

Of course, when you get into specialty classes (Quantum Mechanics, 4th year; or Linear Algebra 3rd year, for example) the expectation is that in specialty classes, the class is mostly advanced students who know the field and a class average in the high B or low A is not unexpected. Then the administration will not expect the marks to bell lower.

In my 2nd year statistics class, the prof followed a first test (average score 85%) with a second test where the average score was 45% and so had a nice distribution to work with instead of lowering people’s marks. He warned us it would be tough thanks to the “average marks” policy. Nobody or no percentage “has to fail” but the average cannot cheapen the university’s marking values.

But… what if the teacher’s good, and explains things well, and the students do better on the tests?

As I mentioned, the instance I encountered was when the marks were ridiculously out of whack. They won’t quibble if the average is 2.5 not 2.0, but maybe they will if it’s 3.25; while it’s nice if everyone get’s an “A”, in a class of 100 typical students they won’t. The odds of them all being above average, except in Lake Woebegon, is pretty low. If the grades are high, more likely the material is too simple or the tests too easy.

Almost everything in university, from entrance requirements and prerequisites to grades, can be argued. generally, the administration is flexible, as long as they don’t feel they are cheapening the meaning of their product. If you really intend to argue the marks are way high simply because the prof is good, and can prove it (let’s say, with a standardized test), then good luck!

Then everybody gets an A and the grades are meaningless.

What if the same teacher taught the same course over and over but one semester’s students scored exceptionally well?

No they’re not. In that particular case, it means everyone mastered the material.

They tried a system something along those lines when I was in Sixth Form at High School in New Zealand; everyone was given a grade (IIRC it was ranked from 1 to 9, 1 being the highest). The problem was that the amount of each grade they had available depended on the performance of the school (or more realistically the students therein) in the previous year’s School Certificate Exams.

The edited highlights were that for some subjects, there simply weren’t that many passing grades available to give out, and it was entirely possible (and I know of at least one case where it actually happened) for someone to get a very good mark (say, over 70%) on a subject and still fail because there were enough people who scored better in the subject to mean all the “Passing” grades were allocated to them and everyone else subsequently “failed”, regardless of how well they’d actually done in the overall assessment for the year.

Theoretically this wasn’t supposed to happen (some mathematical jiggery-pokery was involved to supposedly ensure a more or less even distribution over a curve or something like that), and in the instance I’m aware of the school was able to override the results and make sure that students who passed but missed out on an appropriate grade weren’t disadvantaged.

The goal of a course is to teach the material so an average (for that level of course, typical student taking it) the course grade would be around middle to high C. If too many students are scoring higher, pick one or more -
-the prof is lazy and did not make the course challenging
-the prof (see above) recycles tests and someone passed around a complete set

  • the material is not challenging enough
    -the students are all above average, as their mothers insisted they were.

The odds of the last one are very rare. Even if it is a class full of specialists in the field, then the material should be challenging at their level too. The only difference is they won’t force a bunch of people trying to get into grad school to bell down to C, since 4th year specialists are probably all B or better students on their good days.

Look at it from the university’s point of view. They do NOT want students to say “oh, take Prof Smith’s Modern Cinema course. You watch a film each week and write 1 essay and are guaranteed B or better.” They want their marks to mean something when the stident gets out there.

The way it was explained to us, the prof could argue why the marks were the way they were; but you can’t BS a bunch of other professors who know the field and probably taught that course once upon a time. The course requirements are set long before, and they are NOT made too easy for average students who tend to enroll in that course.

As I said before, belling usually indicates a prof too lazy to tailor the material; most profs aim to bell up, not down, if they do; here is no “must fail” number, they just want the average to be not too far out of line with the norm. The prof can tell who should fail if the testing is set up right. If the prof is consistently failing the students - well, some universities claim to care. Usually teaching,say, “Intro to Statistics for Arts Students” is given to low man on the totem pole or someone who has tenure but has already pissed off the department head.

Generally, people who fail a course have earned that mark - either by missing a lot or work and classes (lazy or otherwise focussed), by having a major problem, or simply taking a course they could not hope to master.

“the world needs ditch diggers too…” Ted Knight, Caddyshack.

In almost all of my classes, the grades are assumed to be normally distributed and letter grades are awarded based on that assumption. Very few classes are graded on an absolute scale (90%+ A, 80-90% B, etc.)

I think it’s actually the most fair way to do it. Many courses are taught by more than one professor, either in the same quarter or subsequent quarters. If you don’t want to penalize students for taking a more difficult (or less apt at teaching) professor, there needs to be some mechanism to normalize grades.

The other option would be to strictly dictate curricula and use standardized exams, which I don’t think teachers or students would like. Normalizing grades allows some flexibility, and also makes it easier for teachers to write tests.

While I agree with everything you said that doesn’t account for the possibility that everyone does well. The test should be reviewed first before grades are altered. Math is math and if students get the answers right then they get the grade they should get.

What if students get the answers right because the tests were too easy?

What if you paid thousands to go to university and the degree was though meaningless by employers?

The admin will only manadate marks adjustment if the marks are way out of whack. This is usually because the test was too easy.

The prof will alway adjust marks so as not to attract the attention of the administration. A good one will make the tests challenging. I’ve had 6 years of undergraduate classes (don’t ask) many years ago, and profs good, bad and ugly. Most managed to bell the marks up if they had to bell.

We’re kinda talking in circles. A course should challenge the students so average is high-C. If the students do well, good. If they do far too well, I doubt and the university administration doubts it is because suddenly this class were all smart and/or well-taught.

And just to reiterate, it rarely is done on “one test”. Mark adjustment is usually done on the final grades for the course, since that’s the only ones the administration cares about. (And if it’s a lazy prof problem, why bell a set of grades more than once?)

OTOH, today there are personal computers, which they did not have “in the good old days”. I recall using a Commodore Pet to help a teacher in the mid-80’s bell grades for her grade 10 class by the simple method of changing the weights of tests and assignments until the mark distribution was “good”. It is not just universities that bell marks.

Yes, but if a student comes out of a course with less knowledge or competence because their instructor was less apt at teaching, should their grade be lower than that of a student with more knowledge and competence in the subject covered by the course.

It all depends on what grades are supposed to indicate or measure: mastery of the material? effort? relative talent or brilliance compared to other students? ability to “play the game”?

I T.A.ed a college class, the professor of which told us that if the median overall score wasn’t given a B, she would be asked by her superiors to provide a damn good explanation why.

Yes, the Lake Woe Begone effect where all the children are above average. High grades make a teacher look good. So too many teachers have given out too many good grades. Requiring failures is a very crude way of fixing the problem.

I once took a statistics course. One major fundamental is that statistics don’t work well in groups of less than 30.

My stats course had 120 students. Chem 120 (anyone in any program except arts) had 6 sections of 150 students each, with different profs. The really good one had lectures attended by students from the other sections; otoh, my linear algebra programming concepts class was only about 30. Stats work in most classes.

If you had only 30 in a class and it was not highly specialized, well, no wonder Canadian tuition is about $3500 and US tuitions can hit $40,000 per year.