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The Drawback to Grading on a Curve
Students in middle school are testing the waters in their own personal experiences. It is not too early for boys and girls at this age to experience some real world consequences for their actions as it relates to test preparation.
A long time ago, I had a teacher named Mr. Snyder. He was my Biology teacher in the tenth grade, and truth be told, Biology was not my strong subject. We had a mid-term test that my entire class did quite poorly, myself naturally included. I felt I had little to fear. Like many other teachers, I assumed that Mr. Snyder would be so kind as to "grade on a curve," allowing the higher failing grades to pass and the lower failing grades to...well...get a higher "F." Besides, he was a kindly, older gentleman with soft features and never a bad word to say about anybody. Surely he could not punish us for one digression of study habits? Alas, I was in for a rude awakening.
The grades were set in stone.
Now, approximately fifteen years later, I currently work as a reading and language arts teacher. I have seen students come and go through my doorway for eight years. And I am always asking myself, upon grading a particularly bad set of papers: Do I allow myself to "curve"? Each and every time, the answer is an emphatic NO.
Students in middle school are testing the waters in their own personal experiences. It is not too early for boys and girls at this age to experience some real world consequences for their actions as it relates to test preparation. Here, it is their own trial and error tendencies that they will discover what exactly takes place if a test is not taken seriously when a week's notice is provided. Far better for negative ramifications to occur in the protection of the classroom setting than for similar negative consequences to take place in the harsh adult world. More on this later.
Some may believe that this form of reasoning appears harsh, and the ensuing metaphor I am about to divulge even ludicrous. However, great philosophers throughout the world basically agree that every person should be allowed a second opportunity. I am a strong proponent of this belief as well. It is why we, in the good old USA, have the "lock-them-up" legal system. In theory, people commit a crime, serve a prison term, and then are rehabilitated and set free. When rehabilitation does not happen, they serve more time for more crimes. With increases transgressions comes more serious consequences.
In light of this, why not grant a student a second chance? Why not curve a particularly nasty exam that has students nail-biting down to their cuticles?
Simply because, all decent teachers already provide second chances. And a third, fourth, fifth, etc. This is known as the next test, the future project, the oral presentation due in two weeks, the homework assignment next Friday. However, the "second chance" on a previously graded test should never come at the hands of a teacher trying to beef up the grades in his or her marking book, particularly if said teacher did all he or she could to properly prepare the students. If Joe Smith and his classmates, for example, choose not to prepare for a test when one is announced well in advance, students in the middle school setting can learn something based on the hidden curriculum. This curriculum includes lifelong lessons, social interactions, and intrinsic as well as extrinsic components, not derived from an ordinary textbook or basal reader. They can learn that, in this case, a lack of action (not studying) will directly result in a poor performance (a crummy grade). Therefore, a curve is not necessary.
In fact, installing a "curve mentality" in students is actually far more injurious than handing back the "F" papers. Students will come to expect the curve on all of their tests in a given classroom. Then they will come to expect other teachers to do exactly the same. "But Mr. Nichols curves his hard mid-term exams, why don't you" becomes a whine heard throughout each and every classroom and students feel indignant when their grades are not pushed up.
As a longer term effect, assuming "Joe Smith" has been in many soft-hearted teachers classrooms, he exits college and finds himself no longer "curved." The outside classroom often plays no favorites and reality is a harsh mistress. Joe ponders why his employer will not give him a fifth or sixth chance since he was late to work one too many times. His performance evaluation comes at the end of the quarter, only to find that, this too, was not curved.
Am I being mean and unjust in this theory and perhaps reading a bit too much into an individual's future livelihood and other long-term effects? Besides, it is just one stupid, little test, no? I defy this assertion. Why not take the opportunity as a teacher to prepare students for a cause and effect relationship. Why not prove that a lifelong lesson can be grasped at the young age of 12 and maybe even fully appreciated once the child's shadow passes forever from a teacher's classroom? I will choose to play the part of "the bad guy" for now, in the hopes that one day a student, fully grown and mature, will once again pass through my doorway and acknowledge my tough stance on curving, my positive reinforcements and warnings, and my preparation skills for a noggin scratching assessment.