The Curious Case of the Inequitable Curve

13 Oct, 2013

Christie Wei, Opinion Writer

How many management students does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Two–one to screw it in, and another to push down the ladder. You can always tell a management student when you meet one: the firm handshake, the self-assured grin, and the undeniably competitive vibe, or so the stereotype goes. But hey, it’s not our fault. The practice of curving grades has injected an ambitious, cutthroat nature into our blood, fueling a permeating dog-eat-dog atmosphere within Bronfman High. Curving aims to prevent issues like class-to-class grading discrepancies and grade inflation, while replicating the Darwinian nature of the business environment. However, the curve is just an indictment of the underlying grading issues within Desautels, not a solution. Curving creates its own set of problems, and might not be as fair as the Administration or professors would like you to think.

grades

In the Desautels faculty, professors are required to keep a class average between 65 and 74.99 percent, creating a zero-sum game for the distribution of points within each class. In other words, no one can help you get a better grade without increasing his or her own risk of being curved down. If the class average ends up too high, everyone’s raw score gets a shearing.

Using the curve as a way to adjust grades is kind of like prescribing Tylenol to a patient with a brain tumor: it temporarily relieves the symptoms, but completely overlooks the underlying lethal diagnosis. For instance, the 2012 fall accounting midterm had an average hovering about 50 percent, whereas the winter midterm from the same year had an average around 75 percent.  Even though the grades were bumped up for the fall class, the 25 percent difference raises the question of why there was such a large difference, not just how to make up for it. The point of the curve is to equalize grade variations from professor to professor and from year to year. However, this ignores the cause of the grade variations, such as varying difficulty levels of different sections of the same course.

If grades are going to be curved, the process should at least be transparent. Depending on the openness of the professor, you can be left in the dark about how your grades were adjusted, making the answer to a simple question unnecessarily inaccessible. This ambiguity helps perpetuate the common misconception that there is only one, uniform type of curve. Open your eyes and you’ll find that the world of curves is inhabited by a plethora of different creatures. Familiar functions like linear and root are the dominant species, but abstract algorithms also roam about. Since each type of curve has its own merits and demerits, students should be able to know and question the type of curve, formula or function, that the professor used.

Dig deeper and you will find that certain curves are more insidious. Many curves, such as bell and exponential curves, adjust so that higher grades are curved down more than average grades. In other words, they help the bottom students by taking away from the top. The education system should be the quintessential example of a pure meritocracy in our world: your performance depends completely on how hard you work and study. There is no need for such redistribution. If grades are to be adjusted, then the average should be adjusted equally for everyone. The ideal curve would be a flat scale, where everyone’s grade is scaled by the same absolute amount. We all wrote the same assessments, right?

This also brings up the issue of grade deflation. Why should a student receive a ‘B’ even though they outperformed ‘A’ students from other semesters, merely because he or she took the class with an unfortunately high amount of overachieving students? The quality of each class of students fluctuates, especially given the relatively small class sizes in management, and grading policies should account for these statistical anomalies.

By no means should the mandated curve, the iconic symbol that separates Desautels from other faculties, be abolished without further consideration. However, it needs to be scrutinized and reformed to ensure it achieves what it wishes to achieve –an equal and competitive playing field. As midterms roll around, I can only hope that if you earn your grade, you get to keep it as well.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.

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