OPINION: Curving grades doesn’t give students the feedback they would receive from traditional scoring

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“I’m going to curve this test,” are six words many students want to hear.

Most students in high school are familiar with the “grade curve” concept. It is a belief that letter grades in a given class should be distributed along a bell curve, where the class average is a C, so teachers curve everyone’s grade to fit. As a result, students’ scores reflect a higher grade than originally earned.

To curve, a teacher might add a few points to all grades or make the highest score earned in class the maximum score possible. So a 93 percent on a test would be worth 100 percent. Teachers might also take a hard question or two off the test.  

While this method does boost students’ grades, it is not an accurate measure of their abilities. According to Josette Akresh-Gonzales’ article on the website NEJM Knowledge Plus, testing is the best way for students to learn and retain the information. Such retrieval practice is called the “testing effect.” When a teacher curves the grades, students do not get the same level of response. They don’t know what their actual score was on a test and what they should study later.

The stress factor also plays an important role in testing as students usually perform better under the right amount of stress. If students know their test will be curved, they might relax and underperform, which will bring the average down and urge the teacher to curve even more. By curving grades, a teacher, in essence, is giving the students a reason not to study instead of incentives for studying more.

Some might say there are students who study hard for the test but just don’t have a grasp of the context. When it comes to testing, even with all that studying, they cannot get a grade higher than a D. A curved grade would reward those students for their effort instead of punishing them for something they don’t understand.

This is true, but there are other ways to help students besides curving grades. While teachers are busy and don’t have time to re-explain concepts to individuals, those few struggling could come up with an individual plan or assessment with the teacher to show mastery of the skill and concepts.

Teachers should quit the practice of curving grades. It does not reflect students’ real potential as they are not graded on their abilities but on how they performed in relation to their peers.

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