Trouble with the curve: Grade deflation and class rank can up your degree’s street cred, but at what cost?

Despite the impression we are given in our high school years, grades are not always based on merit once students hit the big leagues. In some college-level courses, grades have to do with how well you stack up with your peers.

“I’ve had students ask how they are going to be able to sell their degree if grades are given away when some people don’t deserve it. I think that is a concern for students. We want to make sure that the degrees are worth something,” said Dean of the Argyros School of Business and Economics Candace Ybarra.

Some classes in the business school implement a rank-order grading system, where a student’s final grade in the class is determined where they fall along amongst their fellow students. While this has shown to be effective at raising grades for those with high drive, it does not come at the expense of others may create a competitive learning environment. In addition to rank-order grading, some professors grade on a bell curve which can depreciate grades.

A university’s grading system is one of the most important aspects in motivating students to perform their best. Rank-order grading a norm-referenced system that pre-specifies the grade breakdown of the group so that incentives for students are clear-cut, according to the International Review of Economics Education. This form of grading system, however, raises questions about fairness and competitiveness within the classroom.

According to Chapman’s ranks and recognition, the Argyros School’s undergraduate program is ranked #34 in the nation by Bloomberg Businessweek and #79 in the best full-time MBA category. In such a competitive school, students are expected to strive for success and perform accordingly in the classroom. However, while some defend rank-order grading as a way separate the strong from the weak, others reject the system for its unfairness.

Production and Operations Management, taught by Dr. Pradip Shukla, is one of these classes which implements the rank-order system. Business administration major Amy Girardo favors the system.   

“I put more effort into [studying] when I’m being ranked,” Girardo said. “I feel like it motivates me more to do better in the class.”

Girardo said the system has helped her be a better student. The competitive atmosphere helped her determine how much to invest herself in studying and taught her how to study well. Girardo said that she would like to take a ranked class again, since literally knowing “where she stood” helps motivate her. Management is the second class she has taken with this system, the first being an upper-division marketing course.

Research shows that rank-order grading can elevate classroom performance.

One study published in the International Review of Economics Education found that student performance is significantly improved when facing a grading system based on student ranking rather than performance standards. The improved outcomes from rank-order grading largely arise among the high performers, but not at the expense of low performers.

In addition to ranked grading, some professors deflate grades to decrease the bell curve average. Dean Candace Ybarra confirmed that professors are encouraged to adhere to some grading guidelines.

“This idea that students are only curved down is wrong. The university mixes many different grading styles and does require professors to follow a specific style,” she said.

Ybarra explained that the business school does not have a specific target, but issues a guideline to new professors about the grading range they should expect. Otherwise, professors have the freedom to practice a system that makes sense to them.

“A professor can use any kind of distribution as long as it’s clear in their outlines. In some classes, the average is a B- and in some it’s a B. It really depends on the course and the professor’s testing and teaching technique. We have professors that give very generous grades and there are some that are really tough,” she said.

Ybarra is also a professor in the business school and has her own grading system.

“The grading system I use for my class is very clear and simple. The only time I ever curve is when I curve up, and a lot of professors do this,” she said.

Ybarra said there are few professors who curve down, and if they do it’s rare. She speculated it’s because said professor issued an easier exam or assignment.

“If a professor gives an exam that may be hard, they usually lift everyone’s grades up. Students never complain about that,” she said.

Ryan Waranauskas, a senior business administration major, said most of his business classes have given students a syllabus that explains how they will be graded in detail. Like any syllabus, they must include grade weighting and assignment totals. But when it comes to letter grades, Waranauskas said it can get dicey.

Most professors mention that the courses in the business school are curved on a bell curve, but I have never seen this affect my score. Almost all of my professors mention this requirement in the business school, and it seems that only some of them follow it,” he said.

Waranauskas has observed how classes can split at either end of the academic spectrum; there’s those who slack, and those who will do anything for the best grades.

These are the people who get their test back, then immediately snoop around to see how they performed in comparison to everyone else. The ones who don’t care as much usually put their test in their backpack and look for the first opportunity to leave class,” he said.

Waranauskas sees himself on the more competitive side, but said he wouldn’t let it affect his sanity or friendships with other classmates.

After four years of pursuing a business degree and experiencing the ranking order system first-hand at Chapman, Waranauskas does not support ranking and grade-deflating systems.

“I don’t see this form of grading ever helping students, but rather bringing their grades down and ultimately creating an imbalance within the classroom. Being that class assignments are random, you never know if you are in a classroom of A students or C students. If the ranked curve was in full effect, people maybe would make a bigger effort to go into the lower-motivated classes in order to stand out and receive a better grade,” he said.

Junior business minor Jayson King finds the grading system to be fair, and said he barely notices the grading curve at all.

“The classes I’ve taken seem pretty fair to me. For me it just comes down to doing the best I can. I’m not super concerned about the grading curve that some professors implement. As long as the teachers are great and know what they’re talking about, then I am satisfied,” he said.

While some students express concerns about their grades being curved down in particular classes, Ybarra said it’s not common.

“Students overthink the grades as opposed to the quality of the education they’re getting in a particular class. I think most students don’t even think about it if they’re doing well,” she said.

Unlike other students, Waranauskas has not seen his study habits change because of thse grading systems.

“It seems that ranking doesn’t really come into my mind until after the test is graded in return and students are whispering to each other and asking how other people performed. Even though I am a senior, ranking in comparison to my peers has never been a source of stress or anxiety when considering my performance in classes,” he said.

Similarly, Ybarra does not see competitiveness compromising students’ morale in the classroom.

“I’ve talked to many students in the Production and Operations Management class who are confused about their grades being curved, but they never feel as if they don’t want to try anymore,” she said.

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