Low scores, high curves necessary for challenging courses

March 19, 2017 — by Austin Wang

Is it right to give insanely hard tests only to curve them steeply?

As the last few minutes of the first AP Chemistry midterm wound down to an end in November, the sound of pencils scratching across the paper and erasers squeaking across crumpling paper rose to a crescendo.

The timer finally went off as some students desperately quickened their writing speeds to get their last answers down while others threw their hands up in surrender.

The following week, when AP Chemistry teacher Kathy Nakamatsu announced the midterm point total would be decreased from 60 to 52 in order to reach an 80 percent class average, relief washed over the class.

Although this curve provided a grade boost to all students, it also meant that the initial average score was just over a 69 percent.

    For many students and parents who are sucked into the stereotypical hyper competitive, AP-hoarding, GPA-junky Saratoga culture, getting a test grade below a B is borderline heresy.

    In actuality, classes such as AP Physics have average test and quiz grades that regularly drop below 80 percent. Luckily for the many students who would be on the verge of heart attacks after receiving such scores, physics teacher Kirk Davis “power-curves” the scores up to a B or B-minus average in such a way that the lower scores get a larger grade increase and vice versa.

While such low averages may seem unusual and unwarranted, these low averages reflect the difficult nature of the material.

    AP classes are meant to be challenging, and unlike regular courses, students are expected to go far beyond the taught curriculum and apply what they have learned in different contexts. Often times, students do not and should not know how to do every problem on a test.

    Although some would argue that it is unfair for students to be tested on questions that apply learned concepts in unfamiliar ways, if a student were familiar with every problem on an exam, the exam would instead be emphasizing regurgitation over critical thinking.

    Exams should give students types of problems that they haven’t seen before and aren’t necessarily comfortable doing in order to prevent them from merely memorizing the necessary steps to solve certain kind of problem rather than fully understanding the overall concept.

    These kinds of exams do run the risk of discouraging students from taking challenging classes due to fear of failure, which is why a curve can be important to prevent students from dropping a class due to a single bad grade on a difficult test.

    Making several mistakes on an exam should not prompt students to give up and take an easier class. In fact, missing problems on a test can enrich a student’s learning experience if the student takes the time to review his or her mistakes. After all, if a student aced every test, he or she would hardly learn anything in the class.

In the case of last year’s AP Chemistry midterm, the average score was well in the C range and was curved up to an 80 percent. Almost all students reviewed the test in class or during tutorial as even students who ended with A’s on the exam due to the curve had missed problems and were able to learn from their mistakes and achieve a greater understanding of the material.

On the following midterm, scores rose significantly and a curve was unnecessary.

    While some students may find getting a low score demoralizing even if it were bumped up with a curve, this disappointment acts as preparation for college courses in which exam grades can often drop below 50 percent.

    Additionally, writing a good test is difficult in both high school and college, so tests often include overly tricky questions. Curves can prevent students from being punished due to an overabundance of unintentionally confusing questions.

Furthermore, these difficult exams prepare students for AP exams, which also often have low average scores and large curves to compensate.

For example, according to tweets from Trevor Packer, the  head of the AP examinations for the College Board, students scored extremely low on certain sections of the 2016 AP Biology exam. For 2 of the 8 free-response questions, 50 to 66 percent of students got zero points, and for the entire grid-in section, more than 50 percent of students got zero or one point. Still, more than 60 percent of students scored over a 3 on the AP Biology exam.

Despite the merits of challenging and highly curved tests, not all tests should be difficult to the point where a massive curve is necessary. If every test were heavily curved, students would be able to get decent grades without knowing certain basic concepts as long as they were able to get the majority of other questions mostly correct and rely on the curve to keep their grade high.

Some easier, more surface level quizzes or tests are needed to make sure students must know all basic concepts to get a good grade.

In AP and Honors classes, having a low average test score and a high curve on certain exams is not indicative of failure. More often, it shows that students are being challenged with problems that focus on critical thinking and applying learned skills to new situations and problems.

Although not all tests should be challenging to the point of having a below-C average and a large curve, this kind of testing should be embraced and not discouraged in the school’s AP and Honors classes.

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