Monday, February 28, 2011

Do schools use a bell curve grading system

I was reading an article called “Bell Curve Grading”.  Three parts that I found interesting were:
“In education, grading on a bell curve is a method of assigning grades designed to yield a desired distribution of grades among the students in a class……”
“…Because bell curve grading assigns grades to students based on their relative performance in comparison to classmates' performance, the term "bell curve grading" came, by extension, to be more loosely applied to any method of assigning grades that makes use of comparison between students' performances…..”
“…strict bell-curve grading is rare at the primary and secondary school levels (elementary to high school) but is common at the university level.”
Most elementary to high schools, that I have either taught at or heard of, have abolished the use of a bell curve grading system.  Even though they have formally abolished such a system, does one still exist below the surface?
I started pondering this idea when I heard a teacher talking about her marks.  Three years ago this teacher tried something amazing in her class and the students’ achievement increased drastically.  This achievement was demonstrated by the class average being over 90%, where in other years it was around 65%.  This teacher felt uneasy giving such high marks to most of the students in the class.
I asked this teacher, “What is the best class average to have?”, the response was “65%-75%”.  After our conversation, I proceeded to ask other teachers about the “best” class average, and every single one of them responded with a mark in the range of 65%-75%.  This sounds very similar to grading on a curve.
Wouldn’t the best class average be 100%?  Most would say this absurd; one teacher informed me that if I had a class average of 100%, I better have been teaching robots!  I laughed at the teacher’s comment about robots, and was informed we are teaching humans and as humans we make mistakes.  To give 100% to a student is truly saying this student has never made a mistake in the class.
My heart sank.  We should not be grading students on what they have done throughout the course but what they can demonstrate at the end of the course.  I fear that if you ask some educators they will say they “desire a distribution of grades among the students in a class”, which is “bell curve” grading.
Grades should not be based on what the class is learning, but actually what the student came in the class with and what the student has learned throughout the class.  My last question to all educators out there: “How many times have you given 100% to a student in a course?”  Most who I have asked have informed me that they never have.  I truly feel sad when our highest mark for a course is set outside the reach of a student.  In a sense we are asking students to run a race they have no chance in winning, and we are disappointed when they don’t finish first.


  1. "We should not be grading students on what they have done throughout the course but what they can demonstrate at the end of the course". I don't really agree with this comment. If we are only grading the final product, then the process that students underwent throughout the course is worthless?

    Grades should reflect students individual learning processes and they should also be used to encourage more learning, not only determine if learning has taken place. As learning is a process, grading should also be a process that is undertaken over time and takes into consideration all aspects of learning. How can you measure what a student has learned without taking into account the process?

  2. Ok lets just take grading out of the equation, to better illustrate my point. If the only question you had to answer for each of your students was, "Is this student ready to move on?", would you look at the time the student took to learn a concept, or whether or not the student had learned the concept.

    If you had two students; one who learnt the concepts the day you taught them, and the other who took the entire year to learn them all, which would move on? I hope your answer is both of them.

    I suggest not using grades to rank students (the fast learners vs the slow ones), but more a holistic point of view of whether or not students have learnt concepts.

  3. I have no problem with some students taking longer to learn a concept and have in the past used an end of year assessment as proof that a student now knows the ideas and should be rewarded for this.

    What do you do when a student has shown understanding at one point and then at a later point has not retained their understanding?

  4. Dvora you bring up an excellent point. My first response would be to talk to the student. It could be the wording or the question the second time you asked it. If the student truly does not understand the concept anymore, then how can we as educators truly say the student has ever understood the concept? There is a difference between cramming for an exam and then forgetting the information, than to actually understand a concept.

  5. Just a quick question....I was wondering if I could have a citation from the article you quoted from in this blog. I'm trying to fight curve grading in my school, and I would like to have some articles to back me up. :) Thanks in advance. :)

  6. My school district is pushing the use of the bell curve (beginning in our math dept. with a new program called CMAST). As a natural result, the majority of our once 'A' students in math are embarrassed (because they now have C's) and are beginning to hate the subject. Back in the 1980's and 90's I remember a quite rigorous public discussion debunking the bell curve as a fair grading tool. Any help here in remembering the specific critiques? And are other schools moving towards this type of grading? It's all due to our being in PI in our state tests.

    1. Kathleen, I'm not sure if this problem is still relevant to you, but I found this great article today.

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