Date: Fri, 4 Nov 1994 14:36:39 CST
From: Kathy Bolland
Subject: Grading on Bell Curve
Quick further note: Had a physics class once where the average grade on an
exam was something like 32 out of 100. So 32 was a C. Don't think anyone
got over half the answers right, but no one flunked. Then, having "covered"
that material, we moved on.
One of the weaknesses of grading on a curve is that kids who get high scores
may get low grades if everyone else gets a higher score. That's not good.
But it's even worse when no one understands the material and they all get
passing grades anyway. What sort of silly game is this?
Cindy--A silly game played by people who follow what they
think are the directions; not by people using the normal
curve in any reasonable way. My undergraduate stat
professor, by the way, refused to give Cs or Ds--he said if
you did not understand the material well enough to get an A
or a B, you hadn't learned enough to be worth anything (wait
a minute, what you had learned wasn't worth anything to a
psychologist, not you weren't). He did not grade on a
It's not that I "believe in" the normal curve as any sort of
marvelous device for classroom assessment. But, it's taking
a lot of grief because people use it because it is there, so
to speak. The poor thing is just a theoretical
Does one of our historians know how/why/when it began to be
used by teachers to assign grades?
Unfortunately, I suspect it is being used in many cases
because it can be pointed to and explained, albeit poorly.
People will accept it because it seems objective--it's the
curve, it's not influenced by subjective variables (so they
say). And people who think they can't understand math are
unwilling to complain or demand explanation until they
Perhaps if parents and students everywhere would rise up and
demand to know what grades mean, the curve would disappear
as misused. To me, it's a bit like issues in an election.
Politicians should explain in plain language what they mean.
Voters should demand explanations (and be willing to do some
self-education too). A teacher who cannot explain a
grading method shouldn't use it. [No, this opinion does not
stop me from using my stereo system, which I do not
understand in the least. On the other hand, I wouldn't try
to sell its virtues to anyone.]