Ewha is now in a period of change, with student and faculty activism stronger than it has been in years. Under these circumstances, one change I strongly advocate is to eliminate the fixed grading curve that limits the number of As and Bs that students can receive in classes.
There are already several exceptions to the curve for students studying art and music, and for students from abroad. But, aside from the unfairness of exceptions, the whole concept of a fixed curve is simply illogical and counter-productive. Here’s why:
Imagine an English class where some lucky teacher in a science-fiction world had a chance to work with 10 of the greatest writers ever: Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Plath, Stevens, Milton, Austen, Borges, Orwell... I would expect every one of those students to earn an A. But, at Ewha, only three would get As, four more would get Bs, and the other three would end up with Cs.
Should we give the Cs to the poets and As to the novelists because everyone knows novels are more popular than poetry; thus demonstrating the poets’ poor sense of audience? Of course not! That grading standard would be ridiculously unfair. It would, in fact, be illogical to thrust a diverse set of geniuses into any sort of ranked hierarchy.
But this imaginary scenario is not so different from the unfair situation most Ewha students face in their classes.
According to the Admissions Office, nearly all Ewha students ranked in the top 20 percent of their high school classes and within the top 10 percent of national college entrance exam takers. Why should we assume that 35 percent of those students will do badly in college classes and thus need to be given Cs? It’s illogical and insulting to both the students who try their best and the professors who are, essentially, told that they can’t teach well enough to make all their students do well.
Some support the existing curve on the grounds of motivation. One fear is that teachers will lower their standards. Or, they say, students won’t work as hard if they don’t have to compete with each other for a limited number of As.
These scenarios are possible, but I think unlikely because they ignore the fact that teachers still have assessment tools like tests and papers to measure whether their students have met their goals. Only an extremely lazy or dishonest teacher would ignore failing test scores and inadequate papers, and then give students all As, or even Bs. And for students, the pressure not only meet a standard but also to submit better work than their peers is more likely to de-motivate than motivate them. After one bad grade on a test or paper, many students assume they are too far behind the others to make working hard worthwhile.
The final reason some people support a fixed grading curve is that employers want it. Maybe. But I wonder how important the effect is? Ivy League schools in the U.S. have no grading curves, and the most common grade is an A (Google “Ivy League grades” if you don’t believe me), but we see Ivy League graduates are still in high demand. And, considering all the other things companies tend to look for besides GPA, internships, language skills, leadership experiences, etc. I don’t think a few more As will really hurt our school.
So why do we insist on maintaining a system that tells students and teachers that they aren’t doing well, even when they are? If enough of us raise our voices, maybe this is one system we can change.
Professor Peter Kipp earned his Master of Arts in Teaching from University of Chicago. He is currently teaching in the Department of English Language and Literature at Ewha Womans University