Bell Curve Zombies

submitted as a letter to the editor, Lincoln Journal Star, Aug. 18 2014

 
The August 17th edition of the paper reprinted an editorial Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post wrote titled “A’s for Everyone: Grade Inflation Lives On.” Judging by her biography on the Washington Post website, Catherine Rampell writes about a variety of important topics, but this editorial demonstrates a limited understanding of how teachers currently talk about teaching, learning, and grading.
The premise of Rampell’s argument is that “a pandemic of meaninglessly high grades” swept through colleges, and only “brave Princeton” University tried to resist this tide of “grade inflation.” In her analysis about why this “pandemic” occurred Rampbell doesn’t address one important and basic question: what are grades supposed to measure and communicate, and what grading systems/philosophies best meet this goal?
Rampbell supports Princeton’s efforts to resist grade inflation, which are based on the traditional idea of the “bell curve” of classroom grades: the assumption that the distribution of student grades in any class should align with the bell curve, with a pre-ordained proportion of students receiving certain grades. A few students get As, more get Bs, most get Cs, etc. Many human characteristics are distributed on the bell curve – height, weight, IQ scores, etc. – but there’s no good reason to assume that a distribution of course grades should be distributed in this way. Ideally, course grades should accurately measure and communicate the knowledge and skills students acquire during a course. Why should anyone assume, before the class starts, that a specific percentage of students will end up learning at an “A” level? Why would anyone want a teacher to communicate to students that, no matter how much they achieve during a class, only a pre-specified number of students will receive an “A” and a few of them will definitely get an “F?”
Rampbell’s nostalgia for bell curve grading systems seems to be based on an underlying theory of intelligence: she dismisses the idea that “modern students are uniformly smarter than their parents,” implying that since there are only a specific percentage of “smart” students in a class, only that proportion of students should receive an A. This is an odd theory of teaching and learning. If teachers could (should?) predict which students could learn the course material based on some initial impression or measurement of “smarts,” why bother to teach anyone else? Good teachers know that multiple factors (e.g. cognitive abilities, motivation, effort, stress, etc.) impact student learning. Rampbell assumes that in any class there is a small percentage of “smart” students, and those students should receive As, and any deviation from that bell curve scheme is evidence of grade inflation. This self-fulfilling grading scheme doesn’t leave room for teachers to help a majority of students to achieve, and for grades to reflect that learning.
The bell curve theory of grading is probably familiar to many of us, but there was never any reason to assume it was, or is, a “good” or accurate grading system. Rampbell could have written about the more important grading conversations going on among educators right now: how to more accurately assess and evaluate student knowledge and skills, and how to communicate information about learning through grading systems. Reviving the zombie of the “bell curve” grading philosophy doesn’t add to this conversation, and returning to old grading systems won’t help teachers or students do what they want to do: teach and learn.
(shorter version: The August 17th edition of the paper reprinted an editorial Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post wrote titled “A’s for Everyone: Grade Inflation Lives On.” Rampell’s editorial demonstrates an outdated understanding of how teachers currently talk about teaching, learning, and grading.
The premise of Rampell’s argument is that “a pandemic of meaninglessly high grades” swept through colleges. In her analysis about why this “pandemic” occurred Rampbell doesn’t address one important and basic question: what should grades measure and communicate, and what grading systems/philosophies best meet this goal?
Rampbell supports the traditional idea of the “bell curve” for classroom grades: the assumption that grades in any class should be distributed along a bell curve, with a pre-ordained proportion of students receiving certain grades. A few students get As, more get Bs, most get Cs, etc. Many human characteristics are distributed on the bell curve – height, weight, IQ scores, etc. – but there’s no reason to assume that course grades should be distributed in this way. Ideally, course grades should accurately communicate the knowledge and skills students acquire. Why would anyone want a teacher to assume that, no matter how much students learn, only a pre-specified number will receive an “A” and a few of them will definitely get an “F?”
Rampbell’s nostalgia for bell curve grading systems is based on an underlying theory of intelligence: she dismisses the idea that “modern students are uniformly smarter than their parents,” implying that since there are only a specific percentage of “smart” students in a class, only those students should get As. This is an odd, elitist theory of teaching and learning. Rampbell assumes that in any class there is a small percentage of “smart” students, and only those students should receive As, and any deviation from that bell curve scheme is evidence of grade inflation. This self-fulfilling grading scheme doesn’t leave room for teachers to help all students achieve, and for grades to reflect that learning.
The bell curve theory of grading was often used in the past, but there was never any reason to assume it was a “good” or accurate grading system. Rampbell could have written about the more important grading conversations going on among educators right now: how to more accurately assess and evaluate student knowledge and skills, and how to communicate information about learning through grading systems. Reviving the zombie of the “bell curve” grading philosophy doesn’t add to this conversation, and returning to old grading systems won’t help teachers or students do what they want to do: teach and learn. )

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