Friday, July 4, 2014

Why do student grades only get adjusted upwards?

Why don't we ever bump students down?
When considering final grades for students near a particular cutoff you will hear statements such as:
"He got 48 % but he handed in all the assignments and worked really hard. We should bump him up to 50% so he can pass". 
"She got 78% but she asked lots of good questions in class so we should bump her up to 80% and give her an A." 
This seems reasonable and compassionate. However, if you said something like the following, people might say you were being harsh and unfair.
"She got 80% but talking to her showed she really had a superficial understanding and just crammed for the exam. We should bump her down to 79% and give her a B." 
"He got 51% but skipped most of the lectures and appeared not to do much work. We should bump him down to 49% and fail him."
If we were consistent we would be willing to consider such arguments.
Bumping should go both ways.

I can think of one related exception to this. At my university, students can make a formal application for regrading of a piece of assessment. If this occurs it is done by another faculty member and they must accept the new grade if it is lower. Sometimes it is. I think like this.


  1. In my undergrad, we were allowed to re-take a course (i.e. its exam at the end) once but the last grade would stand. If you screwed up (worse than on your first try...) you screwed up.
    Retaking exams should carry a risk for the student otherwise there's going to be some gambling by students.

    And our examinations were NOT adjusted based on means and distributions. I am flabbergasted by this approach; measuring the understanding a subject in an individual has nothing to do with how well your peers are performing.
    Adjusting a total grade for an exam is therefore bad practice.
    Adjusting the valuation of a single question in an exam because statistics point out that it may have been too hard or too easy can be appropriate, as long as it is based on results on individual questions on the exam. But just moving around total gradings to get the mean to a level that is acceptable is nonsense.

    1. I agree with your concern.
      I have never understood this American practise of "grading on the curve".