Grading on a Curve

I walked into the classroom with a sense of dread, heading straight to my seat with my head down. I avoided looking anybody in the eye. I knew that my classmates could semi-mystically tell just how poorly I’d done on the first major test of the semester and would wonder what made me believe that I belonged in college. It was my freshman year at LSU and I was getting my first taste of just how tough college courses were going to be. This definitely wasn’t high school where I could give minimal effort and still generate grades in the high B’s or low A’s. But what was even more discouraging was the fact that I did study for the test, spending hours upon hours sequestered in the bowels of the library going over notes and highlighted book passages until I was confident I had mastered the material. But when I took the test a familiar feeling came over me. It was same disorientation you get when you sleep away from home and wake up not knowing where you are. That’s what I felt as I stared at the questions on the test. Where the hell did all this stuff come from? They expected us to remember that obscure formula? Crap . . . I’m sunk!

The instructor’s assistant called my name to return my test back to me and I raised my hand to indicate where I was. I could have sworn I caught a glimpse of a look from him that said “dead meat”. I put the test face down on my desk in a childish attempt to postpone the inevitable. When everybody had received their tests, I reluctantly turned mine over and my eyes immediately locked in on the score in the upper right corner of the cover page . . . .62. Ugh. I think that was the lowest score on a test I had received in my history of taking tests. Absently I started wondering what kind of job I might hope to find after I flunked out of school. Maybe some kind of manual labor at a construction site, or maybe a stock boy in a major grocery chain. But then my gaze drifted to the letter score that was written below the numeric score……B. WTF??!! How was that possible? Had I woken up in an alternate universe that morning? A universe where your grade was indicative of how hard you tried as opposed to what you actually knew? For a moment I considered testing this theory out by leaning over to the gorgeous blonde sitting in the seat next to me and asking her out on a date, but I restrained myself.

As it turns out that was my first introduction to the concept of grading on a curve. Although my absolute score was a 62, meaning I answered 62% of the questions correctly, my relative score was a B. It turns out that the majority of the class performed even more miserably on the test than I had, and when all of the scores were charted against a normal bell curve mine was slightly above the average, earning me my B. What an amazing concept Curving was! Of course it also has its downsides as well. If you scored an 81% on a test (normally a B), but everybody else aced it with scores higher than yours, that would make your relative grade a C or lower. Bummer. I spoke to a friend of mine who was taking the same class with a different instructor and he also received a grade in the 60’s, but his adjusted grade was only a C. It seems either his class was smarter than mine or the instructor gave easier tests. Relativity can be a fickle thing.

What got me thinking about this? Recently I was reading another blog where the woman author was discussing her husband’s relationship with their children. She felt he should be more involved in their day to day activities. He countered that he was already 100 more times more involved than his father had been with him. She admitted that was probably true, but it still wasn’t enough. This exchange struck a chord with me and I began to wonder whether we as parents, moms and dads both, are being graded on a curve. Here we are thinking we’ve aced the parent test because we are doing so much more for our kids than our parents were able to do for us, but the fact is our efforts might only merit a C when you factor in today’s societal norms and expectations. It hardly seems fair. How many times have you heard, “But Billy’s parents let him . . . “ or “Jane’s mom just bought her a new . . . “? Not only is the grading system changing generation to generation, but household to household.

It’s hard to score an A when they keep raising the bar, or shifting the bell curve.

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