Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Bowl Curve

Another disturbing trend I discovered during my first year of teaching was that most of my classes had more students earning Ds and Fs than As, Bs, or Cs. When graphed, my grade distributions looked almost like upside down bell curves. I dubbed this syndrome, The Bowl Curve.

The D and F students were often bright, but they did not do homework. They often came to class without books, binders, pens and pencils. Many were reading far below grade level and had trouble paying attention. Most had clearly experienced social promotion in the past.

I checked their school records out of concern that maybe I was grading to harshly. In most cases, these same students were failing 2, 3, even 4 other classes. Their other teachers and I had met on several occasions to discuss the matter. In general, they were not doing their assignments, or they were chronically absent or tardy, or they come to class unprepared.

I met with one parent who was upset about her daughter’s D in my honors biology class. Her daughter was a bright kid who had terrible test anxiety. I explained that her daughter had earned only 65 out of 270 on the midterm exam and had failed to turn several assignments. Furthermore, her lab reports were poorly written and incomplete. We discussed test-taking strategies and ways to combat the anxieties. By the end of the meeting, both mother and daughter appeared satisfied. The mother thanked me and said she would help her daughter try some of my suggestions.

The next day I was called into the principal’s office. “Mrs. Jones is really upset! She can’t understand your grading policy. She says her daughter has turned in all her work, yet she still earned only a D?!”

After repeating to him what I had discussed with Mrs. Jones, I asserted that the grade was more than fair. “I don’t agree,” he argued. “She worked really hard. She deserves more than a D. After all, 65 out of 270 is a pretty good score for biology.”

“65 out of 270,” I reminded him, “is only 24%. To earn a D- she would need 60%. Keep in mind, this is an honors biology course. Considering the missing assignments and weak lab reports, I consider a D to be very generous.”

“Generous?!!” he screamed. “You’re so old-fashioned, Mr. Dunn. No one uses that old percentage system! Get with the program! And it’s not just the Jones girl. You have too many Ds and Fs.”

He suggested that I make missing assignments worth 25% instead of 0%. “An F is an F, after all.” So I tried his Enron style of grading and found that in most cases it made no difference. These students were missing so many assignments and had such low test scores that they still had Fs overall.

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