Assigning grades on a bell curve does not reflect student performance

Ashka Dighe

In some classes, students who are capable and deserving of an A are being denied the opportunity to achieve that grade. This is because some professors have chosen to grade on bell curves, or based on rankings, which pit students against each other instead of reflecting their actual capabilities. 

Eren Baysal, a Plan II and economics sophomore, took a microeconomics course where the professor assigned grades at the end of the semester based on ranking relative to other students. Baysal and his peers in the course felt confused about where they stood in the course and what their final grade might be since it would be relative to each other. Professors who assign grades based on rankings evaluate students’ achievements relative to each other and might even be preventing worthy students of achieving a grade they are capable of earning.

David Platt, associate dean for Undergraduate Programs in McCombs School of Business, said in McCombs suggested averages for each course are not actually a policy, but they are recommended. Professors have the liberty to choose whatever grading distribution structure they believe is best for their course. Instead of forcing students’ grades to fit a predetermined average, students’ grades should be a reflection of their learning and achievements. This would allow students’ grades to be an accurate measurement of their accomplishments instead of a measurement relative to their peers’ work.

“I think averages should be a reflection of how students perform,” Baysal said. “But instead it’s become a guideline that they make everyone fit under. The grade was not a reflection of how I was doing in the class, but instead, how I did compared to other students in the class.”

According to Platt, recommendations for averages were introduced to ensure fairness when there were multiple sections of the same course, so that students were not penalized for choosing the tougher professor. The goal of these guidelines was not to create a competitive snake-breeding environment in which students are pinned against each other. Its purpose was to give all students the opportunity to succeed despite a few challenging professors and courses.

While many professors choose to grade with this bell curve to help maintain consistent averages each semester and fair results relative to other professors, this can be harmful to students. By restricting the number of students who are allowed to get an A in a class, professors make it unfairly difficult for all talented students to gain the grade they deserve. 

If grades are meant to be a representation of our own progress and learning in a class, they should not be assigned relative to other students.

Providing guidelines for grading makes it easier for professors to structure their courses, but when those guidelines are interpreted literally and enforced strictly, students may suffer. Grade distributions that compare students to each other not only is an inaccurate representation of each student’s capabilities, but also means that collaboration with peers could hinder your chances of achieving higher grades. Every student should be allowed to achieve the grade that they fairly worked to earn instead of a grade based on other students’ performance.

Dighe is a Plan II and neuroscience sophomore from Houston.