The Curve

I teach conversation classes to third and fourth year English majors.  They easily have the highest-level English skills of all of the students at my school; they’re engaged, funny, and really dedicated to being the best students they can be and advocating for their own education.  They actually come to my office hours just to chat!  This is why it is so heartbreaking that I’m giving a C+ to students who earned a 90% in my class and a B+ to students who earned a 96%.  The difference between an A and a B student in one of my classes was that one of them came to class late once.   

Most university classes in South Korea are graded on a curve; at my university, only 30% of the students can receive an A — no matter how successful they are or how hard they’ve worked.  They could all bust their asses, come to every class, practice presentations until they’re blue in the face, and still only nine of thirty-two can get an A.  Another 30% must receive a C or lower — for some reason, the computer grading system has decided that although the percentage is the same, nine students can get an A, but ten students must receive a C.

This won’t stop after university.  Most jobs in South Korea have mandatory professional development and evaluations in place that rank employees; raises are partially based on these rankings.  This system of hyper-competition has real life consequences.  If a student has less than a B average at my university, he or she is unable to participate in special programs, like our English intensive course or study abroad.  This means that students are effectively being punished for actually earning As that we’re taking back from them. 

There are those who praise the education system in South Korea for forcing students into high achievement tunnel vision simply because it affects student test scores; however, this model of education is deflating and destructive.  It lowers student and teacher morale. 

The school computers won’t allow grades to be submitted if there is a higher percentage of A grades or B grades than is supposed to be there, and the way we enter grades is by typing in number scores from student work.  What this means is that we have to purposefully enter egregious numbers to lower our students’ scores.  This is not just a practice at my university, but at most private universities in the country.

I’m at a loss for how this is supposed to a good thing in any way for anyone.

UPDATE!  I teach one class that was promoted throughout the department as not having a curve, which is part of the reason students sign up for it; it’s a multi-course program that all of the foreign instructors are part of.  We graded fairly and told the students their grades last week.  Today we got an email telling us that actually, the academic affairs office has decided that only 40% of the students in that class can receive an A… which means that students who think they’re getting an A+ will really be receiving a B.  Way to go, Terrible U! 

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