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The Ongoing Debate about Grade Curving in Academia (Part I)

This is the first article in a three-part series reviewing a New York Times op-ed piece entitled “Why We Should Stop Grading Students on a Curve” by Dr. Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania.

In 2019, I wrote an article series dedicated to an explanation of the reasons why I think grading on a curve is the best assessment philosophy when it comes to academic rigor. For those not already familiar with what grade curving is, I refer you to my previous series for a detailed explanation.

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The Practice of Grade Curving in Academia

To summarize, grade curving is a method of adjustment to student scores on assessments based on pre-established expectations for how students should perform on a given task, all things being equal.

Of course, it’s difficult to be more specific or detailed than that at the onset, because there are so many different strategies and approaches to the ways in which different instructors curve different assessments for different reasons. In my prior series, I explained that there really isn’t any consensus on the subject, and discussions surrounding grade curving are fraught with controversy and disagreement, even among learned academicians.

Nonetheless, choices in assessment strategy have serious implications for students, as the scores and feedback provided to them shape the way they see the current status of their ability, their place in the peer groups in which they find themselves, and the different roads that lay ahead of them. Previously, I attempted to offer a recipe for what, in my opinion, is an optimal approach to grade curving — one that maximizes fairness and balance for students’ benefit.

Dr. Adam Grant’s Approach to Grading

In 2016, Dr. Adam Grant from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania penned an article for the New York Times in which he took a different approach to the subject of grade curving. In this series, I will examine Dr. Grant’s arguments, elucidate where he and I agree and disagree, and articulate a respectful rebuttal to a few points made in his piece.

In full disclosure to readers, I’ve never met or spoken with Dr. Grant. But his credentials and experience speak for themselves, and I respect his perspective on this topic as an intellectual colleague.

Nothing in this article series should be construed as an attempt to antagonize Dr. Grant or discredit his work. Rather, my aim is simply to offer a counter perspective and contribute food for thought on this subject.

That said, the following is a brief outline of some of Dr. Grant’s points, along with my commentary as I discovered places where we appear to see eye to eye and places where we don’t.

First, Dr. Grant opens with some brief comments on grade inflation in higher education and how it has become a significant problem in recent years. I have no argument there. The standards of rigor in higher ed need to be bolstered so that we are not forcing students through an arbitrary funnel and transforming our institutions into quality-deficient “diploma mills.”

Later in the article, Dr. Grant highlights the virtues of promoting teamwork and collaboration among individuals and how such habits lead to better psychological health through improved feelings of “belongingness” and “social support.” In some contexts, teamwork can also deliver superior overall performance for groups.

This is the classic “synergy” effect — the idea that if members of a team work effectively together, their aggregate effort can yield a greater output than the sum of their individual parts would if they worked independently. Again, I have no quarrel with any of these points. I think teamwork is a powerful and important skill to learn in higher education, and I would never shy away from promoting it as a part of overall learning in the classroom.

But then Dr. Grant also offers opinions that reveal the daylight between us. For example, he articulates that grade curving creates a “toxic environment” and fosters a “hypercompetitive culture” that breeds unhealthy zero-sum thinking. In other words, Dr. Grant worries that grade curving necessitates an attitude that, in order for one student to win, the others must all lose.

I have several important criticisms to offer here. First, I think the zero-sum element is grossly over-dramatized and misrepresented in Dr. Grant’s assessment. He criticizes the kind of “forced curving” that mandates precisely how many of each grade there should be in a class — for example, seven As, nine Bs and so on. I wholeheartedly agree that this type of grade curving is the wrong approach.

But oddly, Dr. Grant later advocates — and in fact admits to using in his own classes — a different kind of curving, which is one where he creates overly difficult assessments. He then awards all students in his class points after the fact, equivalent to the difference between a perfect score and the best score any student was able to earn before the curve.

For example, if the best raw score on an assessment was an 83%, Dr. Grant awards 17 points to all students, thus curving upward to account for unreasonable difficulty in the assessment and thereby awarding a “perfect” score to the best performer in the class. I do the same in my classes, and it’s also precisely what I advocated in my prior articles.

Despite Dr. Grant’s criticisms of grade curving, his method is, by definition, a kind of curve. Incidentally, it makes the “no curving” theme of his article a bit hard to square with his own practices.

In the next part of this series, I’ll explain what this grade curving method means for students and how it fits into a larger education model for developing young minds.

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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