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For the last few months I have been tutoring a student in a university math course and they just received their finally course grade which numerically was a 78, but to my surprise the letter grade they received was a D. The letter grade they received was due to a grading policy along the lines of the top 15% of students get an A,next 35% B's, then 35% C's, and the bottom 15% receive a D/F.

While a D is technically considered passing the student I am working with needs at least a C- for the course to count towards their program. Is it unreasonable for the student to request a list of all other students grades from the prof to verify that they were actually in the bottom 15%?

Normally for a student to verify their grade they can simply check their grades against the letter grade requirement in the course syllabus but that is not the case here.

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    In the USA it would be illegal for the professor to give one student access to the grades of other students, even if anonymized behind student IDs. The student's best bet is to go to a dean or other administrator. – shane May 26 '16 at 15:06
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    Yes it's unreasonable. However it's not unreasonable to request the grade be checked. That's one hell of a curve if 78% is a D. – TheMathemagician May 26 '16 at 15:09
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    Rank statistics. Nice. I have had brilliant classes and not quite so brilliant ones. That would have been a fair match of A vs. A or D vs. D. (not!!) This is evil. If they cannot gauge the difficulty of their test, they cannot dump their responsibility for that off on the rank statistics of the class. Recheck is fine, but, really, this is an utterly antiproductive way of allocating marks, penalising students from being in the wrong class and promoting antagonism. I believe that Microsoft recently moved away from a similarly spirited management approach. – Captain Emacs May 26 '16 at 16:12
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    @shane: For what it's worth, the OP does not strictly need grades anonymized behind student IDs, they just need a histogram of grades (i.e. no IDs of any kind linked to any individual grade). – O. R. Mapper May 26 '16 at 16:14
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    @shane I've been in many classes in the USA where the prof showed a graph of the students' grades on a midterm. There was no identifying info like student IDs, just the grades themselves. – tokamak May 26 '16 at 19:23
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Is it unreasonable for the student to request a list of all other students grades from the prof to verify that they were actually in the bottom 15%?

Yes, it's unreasonable. It's perfectly fine to ask something like "My reading of the grading policy is that only the bottom 15% of the class receives a D or below. Is that correct, and is my grade of 78 really in the bottom 15%? I felt I was doing better than that, so I'd like to check that the D is correct." Requesting the other grades themselves offers no more assurance that it's right (the only situation where it really helps you is if the professor just isn't capable of computing 15% correctly), it's more work for the professor, and most importantly it leaks information about how other people are doing. For example, one of the top students in the class could use this data to make a good guess as to whether their rival had outperformed them or not. The particular risks here might not be a big deal, but at least in the U.S. grades are considered private and should not be revealed.

  • "make a good guess as to whether their rival had outperformed them" - isn't the concept of rivalry in this scenario redundant? The only "rival" you have is your previous best score. – Roger Rowland May 28 '16 at 8:43
  • @RogerRowland: I just mean that some students feel very competitive with their classmates and eager to figure out whether specific other students did better or worse than they did. – Anonymous Mathematician May 28 '16 at 17:03
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It should also be checked if students were notified at the start of the semester that rank statistics would be used to assign grades. If not, that's likely more than enough reason for having the grades checked, since most schools will have a grading standard that says 78% is equivalent to a C or C+, not a D.

Also, while you, as the tutor, have no right to ask for a list or histogram of grades, the student has the right to know where they stood in the class overall relative to the various demarcation points, and what was the scheme used to assign grades. However, as pointed out, they don't have the right to ask for all of the numerical grades.

  • I believe the students were supposed to be "aware" that rank statistics were going to be used to assign grades since that is what is stated in the syllabus I was shown for the class, whether the students were explicitly told I'm not sure. – KBusc May 26 '16 at 18:44
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    Something published in a syllabus is sufficient. – aeismail May 26 '16 at 19:19
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    At least in the US, it just isn't true that a student has the right to know where they stood in the class overall. They do typically have a right to know how grades are assigned which would imply where they stood in this case, But there is no general right to know how they stand in comparison with others. – cfr May 26 '16 at 22:21
  • @cfr: Sorry—my original statement wasn't clear. They do have the right to know what they needed to have to get an A, B, C, etc. They should also at least have the right to know what the mean in the course was, so that they can see if the grade is at least plausible. – aeismail May 26 '16 at 23:03
  • In this case, yes. But only because of the way the grades are assigned. They don't have an independent right to know the mean. – cfr May 27 '16 at 1:27
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Hard truth: Grades are subjective, professors can give any kind of grade they want and there is little recourse. I've known more than a few cases where a parents whining to a dean will result in that dean leaning on the prof to change the grade, but if they're tenured the dead doesn't have that much leverage (go tenure!).

Also, by asking this you're implicitly accusing the professor of lying. Maybe they are lying, but you should be aware that this is what you're communicating and be prepared for what you get.

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    Grades are not always subjective, and professors can not always give what grades they want. Eg units assessed by multiple choice, and scaled to a curve by department level rules. Sure this may not be great, but it may not be the professor's choice – Lyndon White May 27 '16 at 0:21
  • At my university at least, there is no policy which says a certain percentage of correct answers gives you a certain grade. So while, yes, multiple choice tests leave no room for interpretation as far as the answers go, whether or not someone gets 9/10 questions correct means they get an "A" is up to the professor. – ccoffman Jun 8 '16 at 16:58
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    sure at your university, I was just point out that Academia varies more than you might think (for reference I neither upvoted or downvoted) – Lyndon White Jun 9 '16 at 0:19
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The request is not unreasonable, though privacy concerns may make it not possible, particularly for small classes. But this is a problem with the grading method, not the request. The student should be given some information about the grade distribution, or might reasonably request that an administrator or authorized party other than the professor confirm that the grade was calculated correctly and the grading is fair.

As a professor, I think that my students have an absolute right to understand how their grade is calculated. If I make that calculation depend on the distribution of grades in a class, then I've imposed a requirement on myself that my students have a right to understand that distribution, even if they don't know who earned what grades. If I want to obfuscate exact scores as an additional measure of privacy, I could show just a histogram, or announce the mean and standard deviation of grades.

If the student were not given this information, there are two very serious concerns:

  1. The student can spend the whole semester thinking they are performing adequately, only to find out that they were misled. To get a grade of D, the professor must think that student has exhibited a bare degree of competence, and is not ready to advance to higher level material. If the student was clueless earlier in the term because their numerical score indicated they were performing at a high C (what a 78 translates to in most American institutions), that student has not been served well by the course.
  2. Grading the student based on hidden information opens up the possibility that a professor could lower a student's grade for reasons not related to the student's performance (personal dislike, unconscious bias, etc.), and the student would have no way of verifying.

In courses I have taken as both an undergraduate and graduate student (in American institutions), when exams or courses were "curved" (i.e., graded in relation to the distribution), the professors would always give us some summary statistics (such as the mean score, or number of students in each letter grade bucket). As a professor, when I have curved an exam, I also would provide information on at least the mean, and maybe some other summary information as well. No one has ever indicated to me that this violates privacy requirements. But if, say, an administrator told me that I could no longer do that because of privacy concerns, then it seems that a faculty advisor, department chair, administrator, or someone else with appropriate authority to review private student records would have to be given access to all student grades in the course so that a student would have recourse if they suspect they have been graded unfairly (point 2 above).

I have to also say that in my experience when student grades are based on the distribution of other students' scores, it usually means that grades are raised relative to what they would have been using an absolute scale. I have not heard of someone using the distribution to lower final grades relative to what they would have been on an absolute scale. I never experienced it as a student (and would have been unhappy if it happened), I wouldn't do it as a professor, and I have not heard of colleagues doing it in their courses.

In summary, although it was not part of the original question, I think it has to be said that this grading system is pedagogically unsound because it seriously impedes the students' ability to understand their mastery of the material prior to the assignment of the final grade. Be that as it may, because the student has a right to understand how their grade is calculated, and in order to avoid the possibility of the professor assigning arbitrary or unfair grades, if this is the way a course is going to be graded, the professor has imposed upon themself the duty to publicize some information about the the distribution of scores in the course.

  • "As a professor, I think that my students have an absolute right to understand how their grade is calculated." While this stance is ethically unimpeachable, there are pragmatic reasons to leave in some discretion in how the final grade is curved, so that e.g. it is possible to bump the grade of a barely-failing graduating senior to a C-, etc. – user168715 May 27 '16 at 15:33
  • @user168715 I completely agree. I not arguing against faculty discretion, I said the student has a right to understand it. When I do what you describe, that is, bump a student's grade higher, I will personally communicate with them why I am doing so (something like "improved later in the course", "consistent attendance and participation", etc.). But do faculty have discretion to bump a grade down? And how can the student know whether that has happened? In the OP's scenario, the student can't be sure. – Lee Hachadoorian May 27 '16 at 17:12

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