Kyle Henson | How to beat the curve
The Logical Skeptic | Increasing enrollment in the sciences is essential
March 13, 2012, 12:14 am · Updated March 14, 2012, 11:40 pm·
The Logical Skeptic
Over the past few years, President Barack Obama and many education experts have called for an increase in American students majoring in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — fields.
Everyone seems to agree that students in these fields are vital toward our nation’s future, but experts don’t agree upon the problem’s cause.
Recent studies have found that attrition from science and engineering fields amounts to some 40 percent of those matriculating with declared interest in those majors — a much higher rate than those interested in humanities and social sciences.
The problem in producing STEM majors, therefore, doesn’t seem to come from a lack of interest but results from something that happens after students arrive at college.
While there are a myriad of contributing factors, it seems that the grading curve prevalent within the sciences stands as the root of this attrition.
For those who are unfamiliar, the curve means two things: stress and a lower GPA. Most classes with curves have exam averages that float somewhere between the high 50s and the low 60s. To prevent half of the class from failing, professors place grades on a statistical curve. The average grade is then converted to a C or a B-.
Curves directly compare students to their peers, breeding incredible competition, which results in stress and frustration.
An incredibly troublesome scenario emerges when one considers the curve at elite institutions like Penn.
All students at Penn — assuming some faith in Dean of Admissions Eric Furda — are intelligent and hardworking. Why, then, should an average Penn sophomore, whose 2,152 SAT score placed him or her in the 98th percentile of all high schoolers, be deterred from majoring in biology or chemistry?
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that STEM majors tend to have stronger GPAs and SAT scores than the average student at a given university, according to a recent UCLA study.
It seems that the system’s flaws are pushing some of the nation’s strongest students out of the sciences.
So here’s my not-so-radical solution: first, set the average course grade to something that at least approaches the University’s average — presumably somewhere around a B .
Next, reserve unqualified A’s to a professor’s discretion. Make students excel either through extraordinary effort or amazing promise. Yes, this will force students to interact much more with their professors and demand more office hours, but it would be good for all involved. Professors would be forced to get to know their students and students couldn’t skip all of the lectures just to show up for the exams.
Princeton University adopted a similar plan in 2004, now colloquially referred to as “grade deflation.” The policy strives to regulate grading across departments and even individual courses. It sets a loose guideline of about 35 percent A’s with an average grade somewhere between a B and a B .
While Princeton’s system certainly has its problems, the concept of standardizing grades is vital in preventing students from feeling penalized for studying what they like.
I used to think the curve was good for Penn. I thought it made students study and learn more than they would otherwise. Yet, over the past five semesters, I’ve seen too many dedicated and intelligent students walk out of exams crying or go an unhealthy number of hours without sleep just to outcompete their fellow classmates.
It’s hard to blame students that abandon the sciences for greener pastures. Making direct comparisons to our peers the primary form of evaluation quickly muddles any course and makes it more about the exam than the material.
More important than the stress created by the curve, its contribution towards the STEM attrition rate poses a grave danger for our nation’s future competitiveness. Universities, even private ones, have a unique responsibility for the education of a nation’s population.
It is imperative that all unnecessary barriers toward the fulfillment of this goal be removed. Fixing the curve is a great start.
Kyle Henson is a College junior from Harrisburg, Pa. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. The Logical Skeptic appears every other Tuesday.