All ‘A’s’ are not credited equal

Michael Huston

Generally speaking, most students are happy to find out that any given class is graded on a curve. Such a system usually means that at least the best students are guaranteed to get A’s and that everyone’s grades will likely be inflated to some degree.

Sometimes a curve means that there is a pre-set proportion of students will receive “”A’s,”” “”B’s,”” etc.

But beyond increasing the likelihood of getting an “”A”” with a low grade, there is a more important reason that students should favor curved grading systems: They’re more like real life.

Some say the major problem with curved grading is that it increases competition unnecessarily and puts more pressure on students who have to work not only against teachers’ standards but against those of their classmates as well.

The problem with any argument that laments increased competitiveness, however, is that it ignores a very basic and very important fact: In life, just about everything is a competition.

The truth is that once students get out of college, they will constantly be in competition for jobs, promotions, opportunities and awards.

When a former student is interviewing for a single job along with five other applicants, the relevant question is not how good she is for the position, but how good she is in relation to the other candidates.

In other words, it doesn’t matter what you can do, only that you can do it better than the next guy.

A curved grading system follows this principle by awarding grades based on students’ performances in relation to those of their classmates.

Jason Brennan, a philosophy graduate student who uses a curve in the undergraduate philosophy course he teaches, said, “”The point of grading is to evaluate performance. In the field, most of the time, work is judged competitively and comparatively.””

It’s better that students learn now what it means to compete against their neighbors for something they both want – in this case, a high grade – than that they be thrown into a corporate environment without the ability to compete effectively.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that one should approach every academic endeavor with a cut-throat, do-or-die, me-or-him tenacity, but understanding how to be friendly and cooperative among people with whom you are also in competition is a valuable tool in the professional world.

There is still another reason that curved grading systems are beneficial in academic settings that derives from a principle of economics that Adam Smith figured out centuries ago: Competition breeds excellence.

This philosophy, which holds that a free and competitive market will tend to produce the highest quality goods at the most appropriate prices, is the starting point of capitalism.

In the classroom, that means that students have an added motivation to put forth their best effort.

After observing the results of his curved grading system, Brennan said, “”The uncertainty tends to make (students) do a little bit better”” and “”even ‘A’ students have an incentive to try harder.””

This is because the best students in a class are forced to compete against each other and not against an immovable 90-percent standard that many students can simply meet and then stop working.

Of course, cooperative learning and group work are valuable parts of the educational experience, and students and teachers alike should beware the isolationism and ultra-competitiveness that a curve might invite, but generally speaking, students need to know what it means to compete effectively before they get into the workplace.

As finals approach in classes that use curves to assign grades, even if students are upset now about having to work that much harder for those last “”B”” grades, they’ll be thankful later for having discovered the motivation it takes to push themselves over the top.

As children, we’re taught to be friendly with phrases like, “”It’s not a competition,”” but don’t kid yourself: In life, everything is.

Michael Huston is a junior majoring in political science and philosophy. He can be reached at