Op-Ed: The trouble with bell curves

By Kyle Tascione ‘20



To start, we’re going to talk about Harvard University. I know, I know, “too rich for my blood.” But Harvard, partially due to its prestige and partially to its rigor, has become a hotbed for a rising educational problem: grade inflation.

In 1960, the average GPA of a student in Harvard was 2.7. By the mid-2000s, it crossed 3.5, and it currently sits at 3.67. Harvard isn’t alone. According to the Washington Post, average grades in colleges across the country have been rising steadily since the 1960s. Many educators and analysts claim that grade inflation panders to the millennial generation who “expect to be rewarded just for showing up.”

The obvious solution to this problem, then, seems to be a curve to normal distribution– a bell curve. If you snoozed a bit through Algebra II like I did, just bear with me. The idea is to find an ideal distribution of scores. Let’s say so many students take a test. If the average is a 60 percent, and then the grades are applied on a bell curve, most of the students who scored around a 60 percent will earn a C. The students who scored well above 60 percent will earn an A, while the 40 percent-scoring students earn an F. It seems fair, right? This guarantees test-takers won’t be hit with a 60% grade when they performed as well as could be expected in the class.

Now, hold your horses. There can be no doubt that this forced grade deflation negatively impacts students, and grade inflation isn’t as much of a problem as it appears. Let’s start with grade inflation. When looking at prestigious institutions like Harvard, one of the strongest barriers to enrollment is self-selection. The majority of students get A’s because the students who would struggle don’t apply for those classes, which raises the average grade. The so-called “buffer classes” used to boost GPA are most commonly entry-level or introductory classes.

Forced grade deflation is far more dangerous than grade inflation. For every successful student in a class, there must be another being forcibly pushed down. It pits students against each other to fight for the top grades. When 40 percent of the students want to be in the top 5 percent, there’ll be blood spilled before the semester is done.

These nuances in education matter. The majority of colleges still use the bell curve to determine grades in their classes. The point is bell curves aren’t going away, so students need to be prepared to deal with them.


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