In the spring of my freshman year, I walked into Honors Microeconomics thinking my A in ECO 108, the pre-requisite, would guarantee me an easy semester. I was very wrong, and when the professor handed me my midterm with a big red 32/100 on it, I was sure my GPA and graduate school ambitions were doomed. As I composed myself and raised my head, I noticed the professor had written a grade distribution on the board and assigned letter grades to each range. My 32 was a B-. This was my first introduction to the curve.

The concept of the curve is simple: the highest grades are assigned the highest scores; the lowest scores receive the lowest grades. This happens regardless of what the high and low scores are. In Honors Microeconomics, a few students scored in the 80s and 90s out of the 100 point scale on that midterm but the rest of us were far below. The professor decided to ignore the high performing students and grade us on a curve. I called my parents to share my excitement but was careful to avoid telling them that even with a B- I had answered fewer than a third of the problems correctly.

Grading on a curve has its advantages. Mainly, there is no guarantee that a test or assignment is designed to carefully match the objectives and expectations of a course. In fact, some tests are designed to be too hard in order to allow students to demonstrate conceptual understanding without getting every answer exactly correct. In those cases, the curve is not a generosity. It is just.

But economics taught me to think about the long run, and in the long run, the curve may hold us back. The biggest problem with the curve is that it prevents objective evaluations. Without objective performance comparisons, we have no way to identify problems with specific courses, teachers or even students. For example, a bad professor who does a poor job teaching a course can hide his incompetence by lowering the grading standards. Once a reasonable number of students receive grades that indicate they did well in the class, no one will be able to guess that they did not actually learn. The same can be true of us students. If we as a whole do not take a course seriously, we will march toward our diplomas without a good measure of what we really know.

And let’s not forget why we try to get good grades in the first place. Employers and graduate schools would like to make decisions based on what we have learned, and the easiest way for them to see that is on a transcript. Without objective grading, a transcript only compares us to our peers at UR and says nothing about our individual merits.

I propose that the University adopt a policy in which grades are not based on curves but rather objective performance benchmarks established at the beginning of the semester. These benchmarks must be consistent between courses of similar complexity.

Determining complexity might seem difficult, but isn’t that what that first digit in the course number is supposed to mean? If we continue with the curve, our grades become inflated and, like inflated currency, will be less useful in the real world.

Green is a member of the class of 2010.


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