S-curve, spline curve, bell curve

School is ending, exams are coming, and students across UTM wonder, “What grade will I get?”

The question isn’t as simple as it sounds; even if you enter in every grade, mark it against the syllabus weightings, and account for those mercurial “participation marks”, the mark you get might not be the one you’ve earned.

Of course, it all depends on what you mean by “earned”.

Grading policy at U of T and other universities worldwide usually operate on some sort of curved grading system. A curved grading system enforces a certain grade-point distribution among a class. The philosophy behind curved grading is long, ardous, and frankly too vast to adequately cover in one five-column article, but the basic discussion is as follows.

Some students see the system as a method of ensuring fair grading. “If 200 people fail a test, it’s not because everyone in that class is stupid,” says Aadam Malik, a chemical engineering student. “In a case like that, I think the test was probably too hard.”

Other students believe curved grading makes marks arbitrary. “It seems unfair when grading is not based on your abilities but someone else’s,” says Robert Hartford, an art and art history student. “In one class, I wrote a seven-page article in two hours, handed it in, and got one hundred percent. I didn’t deserve that mark, but my professor probably used it to counteract the test that I’d bombed. I can’t tell what my profs are thinking, and I can’t guarantee that if I put in effort, I’ll get anything out of it.”

Curved grading policies have caused problems for administration and faculty as well. A Macleans article reported on a US professor who had failed most of the students in a biology class. The professor, Steven Aird, claimed that he refused to alter his marks and let students pass without understanding the material. Of course, Aird was promptly fired. The article concluded, “Instead of grade inflation smoothing out the bell curve, it has actually reached the point where it has completely inverted it.”

Other professors have gotten in trouble for grading students too high. In 2010, University of Alberta professor Mikhail Kovalyov was assigned a range of discplinary actions for encouraging his students to fight when their marks were lowered by the faculty.

Ultimately, the problem comes down to how we define a “grade”. A grade is a number meant to indicate performance or understanding, but if everyone has an “excellent” grade of 90%, does that mean somehow everyone is actually excelling the average, or just that the bar is set too low? A number is objective, but a grade is more like a currency that can fall and rise in value depending on its relation to other grades.

Other issues, like steadily rising grade averages across North America and accusations that universities have been passing students too easily, have compounded the problem and added to our collective confusion. I’d add my own input into the discussion but, you know, I gotta study for exams. There’s only three A spots, so I’d better get working.