Published Dec 10, 2004

This afternoon I took my Finance final. So this evening I’m doing that evil thing that everyone who’s ever had their grade set on a curve has done: hoping that my friends and colleagues did more poorly on their Finance exams than I did on mine. I like my classmates, or, at least, select ones. It’s not right that I hope for them to fail, but The Man makes me do it. It’s just the Program Office’s way of keeping us down.

The curve is a seductive, and deeply crappy, concept. By fitting all grades to a normal curve, most people become average — which is nice, because, statistically, most people should be average. Except in school.

School isn’t about being average; it’s about learning and applying that learning. These are nice, measurable things, and we ought to have expectations of what should be learned — and, perhaps more importantly, what professors should be expected to teach. Curves avoid expectations and standards. Does the professor teach the material? Do the students know the material? The answer may be no, but the curve hides this; average can be mediocre at best, but mediocre is curved to a B (in the case of Marshall) and moderately knowledgeable curved to an A, when moderately knowledgeable should be a B-. The curve also hides individual differences between learning. Sometimes professors are good at teaching people who learn in certain ways but not people who learn in other ways. A very large standard deviation can indicate that some people just aren’t learning, while others are learning very well; but the curve subsumes the standard deviation. A person who gets 15 points under the mean could get a B-, when that person’s score really indicates a failure to understand important parts of the topic.

The curve also encourages professors to write extremely hard test. Is your mean score a 60? Well, the curve takes care of that — 60 becomes a B, 75 an A, and, well, if the mean is 60 there probably aren’t too many people with 90s. But too-hard tests can turn students off from a topic or even from pursuing their degree. And why should a test be traumatic? What is achieved? Tests should measure learning and encourage students to achieve further, or serve as a capstone.

Worst of all, the curve pulls students apart. We root for our classmates to do poorly — to set the bottom of the curve, to pull the mean down, to widen the standard deviation. This doesn’t promote school spirit or teamwork, it promotes concealing information and bitterness over the achievement of others.

Let’s be happy when people get As. Let’s hold professors to standards of teaching and students to standards of learning. Let’s abolish the curve and test against set standards. And if grades inflate, then let’s raise our standards.