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When You Grade on a Curve, You Move Away From Mastery and Toward Labelling

September 11, 2016

Adam Grant’s NYTimes op ed essay asserting that we should stop grading students on a curve focusses on his experiences as a graduate school professor at the Wharton School of Business.  His point is that grading on a bell curve in a graduate school compels needless competition among individual students and effectively teaches them to compete with each other instead of working collaboratively to gain a deeper understanding. I wholeheartedly agree with this premise and the conclusion he draws… but felt that he missed a much larger and important point. In the article he writes:

“If your forced curve allows for only seven A’s, but 10 students have mastered the material, three of them will be unfairly punished.”

The bell curve is forced and arguably meaningless in a select college or graduate school where most entrants can master the skills taught in the time provided. In public schools where everyone must master skills, the bell curve is a natural consequence of differences in learning aptitude. Because some students require more time to master the skills taught and time is seen as a limited, whenever a bell curve is used in public education all who get low grades because they cannot learn in the limited time provided are unfairly punished. As long as we accept the premise that time is a constant and learning is a variable we will needlessly punish students who cannot grasp material quickly by labelling them as “failures”. When this premise is imposed on learning in general, we end up claiming that “schools are failing”. Maybe we need to look at our premises about education before we jump to conclusions about the efficacy of public schools. Until we do, we will continue grading on a curve based on time limitations and confusing the RATE of learning with the CAPACITY to learn.

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