The importance of “the curve” in academia

I never would have thought I’d receive this, but the online university for whom I teach classes recently sent me this letter stating that I wasn’t grading in a sufficiently aggressive manner to have an appropriate grade spread. It said:

We expect our graduates to have excellent skills in their chosen fields of study and also in communication, analysis, and critical thinking. However, students cannot improve in these areas without accurate, rigorous, and consistent evaluation of their work. Many instructors would agree that grading is the most difficult aspect of teaching, not only because of the time requirements but also due to the stress associated with making judgments about a student’s performance in class. Both of these factors may contribute to the problem of grade inflation in which the distribution of grades assigned by an instructor does not match the expected distribution of grades for the University student body. The University has determined the following GPA goals…

The letter continues:

• undergraduate courses – overall, the average GPA should not exceed 3.5 with variance less than 0.70

• graduate courses – overall, the average GPA should not exceed 3.75 with variance less than 0.60.

We reviewed the number and types of grades assigned to our Online students for the period of September 1, 2002 to August 31, 2003. We found that you have assigned 26 undergraduate grades with a GPA of 3.57 and variance of 0.34. Though it is possible that you have been teaching exceptional groups of students at the University, it may be important for you to reexamine your grade evaluation process to ensure you are effectively differentiating satisfactory or good work from excellent classroom performance.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that all students should get an “A”, I don’t believe that at all, but when there’s a quota and when statistics are the yardstick of grading, not teaching, quality of learning, subsequent mastery of the subject, etc., it feels a bit like the inmates running the proverbial asylum.

But you might think otherwise. You, my reader, what do you think? Do you think that the professors in your academic classes were similarly analyzed to ensure an appropriate grade spread?

2 comments on “The importance of “the curve” in academia

  1. I personally think it’s total BS to not ‘allow’ giving a deserved grade. If a student needs to know X, Y and Z then has be able to formulate opinions, support arguments and complete tasks correctly with said knowledge – they should be graded on that. Period. IMO, of course, never having taught…
    I agree that they should keep tabs on the grading, because a teacher (like any other employee) may become lazy and just gloss over things – but to have a *formula* to grade students… and *insist* that you follow it without checking into both your obviously above-average teaching ability and the calibre of your students… grrrrr.

  2. Well, I’ve submitted my grades for this latest class and it’s definitely spread across the curve more than my previous classes, with many more B’s than A’s. While I feel a bit like a mean grumbly teacher, I have to admit that I have received my end-of-class positive feedback from students just as I do with “easier” classes, including comments like “You have been an outstanding teacher, it was a pleasure being in your class.”
    So…. maybe I’m still fair and equitable after all… 🙂

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