Although I Realize Students Often Don't Like Grading on a Curve,
I recommend against making a federal case out of it. The complaint in the case is here, and the motion to dismiss is here.
I agree that a federal lawsuit is not the appropriate way to proceed, but in reading the article it does seem that the grade was rather arbitrary. First, the students in this class apparently were not informed at the outset that they would be graded on a curve; the TA teaching the course curved the grades at the end of the semester because he felt that the students' numerical scores were "too high." Moreover, it appears that there is no standard grading scale at the university; the ombudsman "said faculty have their own grading scales and that one professor might view an 84 as an A-minus, while another might view it as a C." Marquis is right that a C on an otherwise B+ transcript would be viewed negatively by law schools and, while probably not dispositive, would make his admission to a good school more difficult. If I were him, I'd be upset about the situation too, particularly when the school refused to do anything about it.
10.4.2007 1:40pm
George Tenet Fangirl:

He got the C in a class called "Problems in Social Thought," which explored the works of theorists such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Karl Marx.

Maybe he would have faired better if he'd based his complaint on the labor theory of value!
10.4.2007 1:41pm
the motion to dismiss says his claims under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1982 should be dismissed because he is not a "member of a racial minority."

I realize the complaint is frivolous, but is that really a reason to dismiss a 1981/1982 claim?
10.4.2007 1:43pm

...particularly when the school refused to do anything about it.

From what I can remember of college, "refus[ing] to do anything about it" is in the highest tradition of the academy.

I wonder how different the college experience would be if they were called 'customers' instead of 'students'.
10.4.2007 1:52pm
Eli Rabett (www):
The complaint is not frivolous. It is not the job of a university to rank its students, it is the job of a university to educate them. If a student masters the work at an A or B level, and then gets knocked down to a C by curving, something is very wrong with the ethics of the teacher.

One of the most difficult things to do in a class is to decide what material needs to be mastered for a student to pass, or pass with distinction. An instructor is supposed to be a teacher not a damned gatekeeper for law or medical school. The suit was a nice gesture. The instructor should have been thrown out of school for unethical behavior.
10.4.2007 1:52pm
MDJD2B (mail):
I like the idea that law schools have mandatory curves, and generally support the idea of curves, believing they should be mandatory, at least for classes of moderate to large size. I prefer being a student under these conditions.

When I was in high school, some teachers were known to be tough graders and some lenient. When you had a teacher that gave only one 90 per class 1/3 of the school's grades were 90 or more, this was unfair to those students.

It is not much of an imposition to ask a teacher to rank his students, and then to use grades as a proxy for rank.

Yes-- some classes are more talented than others, but overall, as a student and as a teacher, I have encountered less variation among groups of students than among faculty grading practices.

Knowing that a student's grades reflect his standing at the school offering the grade also is helpful to both the student and to employers who are looking at the student.
10.4.2007 2:01pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
I have a strong intuition about what is more likely to make an applicant undesireable to a law school, a "C" on the transcript or a record of suing over grades.
10.4.2007 2:02pm
c.l. ball:
I've taught at the college and university level as a TA for 5 years and as an instructor of record for 10 years: I cannot recall an instructor grading 'on a curve' without disclosing this in the syllabus or orally in the first week of classes.

I find the curving process itself to be stupid: if you have scored tests or graded essays, then students should be graded for the course based on their scores or grades, e.g., if you get 80 out of 100, then you have a B-.

There is no scientifically valid reason to believe that non-randomly assigned students should perform according to a normal distribution, the usual curve method. To assume that 68.2% of the students should perform with one standard deviation of the mean score is senseless.

Moreover, grading on curves does not provide accurate ranking information -- only a ranking provides that! Telling me that 68.2% of the students got Cs does not tell me who was at the lowest end and who was at the highest end of the C spectrum.

Absent positive evidence that the students in the class are a random sample of the population of all students, grading with a normal distribution in academic malpractice.
10.4.2007 2:13pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
If the TA, the department, or the student handbook had made the grading system clear at the outset, there would have been no cause for complaint. Law schools make clear their grading curves, and my school let you look up the grades actually given in previous years. Apparently the plaintiff thought he was going to be graded to an objective standard. He also has an estoppel argument in that the grading on the last assignment was much stricter than on the previous assignments.

But I agree suing is useless and a sign of poor judgment. Just suck it up and move on. Stuff happens to all of us. Once I got a C in a class I thought I was sure to get a B and possibly an A, so I asked the prof what happened. He said we had all done quite well, which made it hard for him to match the grades to the curve. In my case, I had the same cumulative score as another student. So he flipped a coin, and I got the C while the other student got a B.
10.4.2007 2:13pm
Mike Keenan:
"if you have scored tests or graded essays, then students should be graded for the course based on their scores or grades, e.g., if you get 80 out of 100, then you have a B-."

That doesn't seem right. What if the next highest score in the class was a 40 because the instructor made the test very difficult. Of course, if the test was designed so that an 80 was reflective of B- mastery, then you could be right.

"Curving" only makes sense when there is a wide distrubution of scores and the curve is done to elevate. If the average score is 95, then the tests are too easy and a curve is silly. "Curving" seems like a lazy approach to proper instruction.
10.4.2007 2:27pm
c.l. ball:
I skimmed the complaint -- Cushing says in his email that he decided that the scores were "too high," so he artificially lowered them. Too high based on what? It is improbable but possible that every student in your class performs identically and all get perfect scores. Do they all get Cs for the class? In the next class, the students perform worse and by the scores no one has an A. Does the TA report no A's or would Cushing now consider the scores "too low" and assign As to students who scored only 85s? By Cushing's logic, and the logic of other curvers, the student in the first class with the perfect score is a C student and the student in the second class with the modest score is an A student. Again, academic malpractice.
10.4.2007 2:28pm

1981 &1982 are acts specifically directed towards racial discrimination. A complaint which doesn't allege racial discrimination doesn't fall under 1981 or 1982. Also, since there's no property transaction involved, it doesn't fall under 1982.

I can barely see a breach of contract claim here, but the rest of it is plainly frivolous. Filing such an idiotic lawsuit (particularly the Constitutional and civil rights claims) should keep him out of law school, not that one C.
10.4.2007 2:31pm
c.l. ball:
He said we had all done quite well, which made it hard for him to match the grades to the curve. In my case, I had the same cumulative score as another student. So he flipped a coin, and I got the C while the other student got a B.

Now that's making a fetish out of the curve! At that point, he might as well randomly assign the final grades for the whole class. At least that would be fair.
10.4.2007 2:34pm

I understand a 1981/1982 complaint can't survive if it doesn't allege "racial discrimination." But that is not the reason given by the defendants for bouncing it-- they say it should be dismissed because the plaintiff isn't a "member of a racial minority," adding for good measure in a footnote that he is a "white male."
10.4.2007 2:38pm

Huh. Very strange, because that actually isn't the law (white males are allowed to sue under 1981/1982, despite the language of the statute.) What happens when the complaint doesn't state a claim, but the defendant's argument as to why it doesn't is wrong as a matter of law?
10.4.2007 2:43pm
Ben P (mail):

It is improbable but possible that every student in your class performs identically and all get perfect scores. Do they all get Cs for the class?

I think this gets to the heart of one of the two issues with curving.

1. Curving makes marginally more sense when assignments are subjectively graded rather than objectively graded. If you have a test that can actually have a "perfect score." That is you can have a 100/100, or you know exactly that you got 82/100 correct or some such number. A bell curve becomes fundamentally unfair.

But where tests are graded on a "A" "B" or "C" scale anyway, there's always going to be variation. A bell curve still has problems, but it's not as intrinsically unfair.

2. Where rankings do matter, Curves are important.

It would be nice if everyone were unranked, but speaking as a Law School Student, that's just not the way it works. We might have a circular situation going on. Law Firms want top ranked students because law school ranks students because law firms want ranks.

A really good professor can design a test so that the grades will naturally fall into a proper distribution.

Students despise these tests, because quite simply, they're hard. But a test that it's almost impossible to get a perfect score on is going to be a better measure of learning ability than one where half the class gets a perfect score.

But even good professors miss shoot every once in a while. (the test where the average falls below 50% for example) and other professors simply arent' very good at writing tests.

Curving allows these different settings to be equalized for the purpose of ranking.

I admit curves are scary. My biggest concern when starting Law School was that as someone who'd consistently been in the top 10% of the class, that I'd be getting worse grades because the professor gave out 1 A, and made a C the average. But they do serve a valid purpose.
10.4.2007 2:47pm
Can anyone say explicitly why this shouldn't be a matter for courts?
10.4.2007 3:07pm
Did anyone else catch the plaintiff's mistaken and self-serving grade calculation in paragraph 16? He first totals up his response paper losses (lost 2.5% out of 20%), then his exam grade losses (10% out of 75%), then subtracts both out of 100%, and not 20+75=95%, to get his 87.5%. This percentage already has a 5% participation grade added in! Afterwards, he sneakily self-awards an additional 5% for his participation grade to claim a final score of 92.5%.
But in fact, his best possible grade is 87.5% assuming he got the full 5% class participation grade.

I wondered why he was making such a complicated matter out of calculating his semester grade.
10.4.2007 3:11pm
What bothered me most in reading the article was that the teacher kept manipulating the grades to get the results he wanted.

Given that the plantiff did objectively well in the class, I can only surmise that the teacher was very good at teaching and/or extremely poor at testing. The end result was a tight cluster of grades for the bulk of the students. (Surely, though, some students had C's before the grade manipulation began--what happened to their grades?)

Grading on curve makes no sense to me. Never has. While I cheered in high school when a teacher raised grades by this method, even then, and though it usually helped me, I thought it was kind of dumb and as much an attempt of the teacher to cover his or her ass as helping the students.

Ranking on curve, however, makes no sense either. Why not just rank everyone?

In other words, grading on a curve has nothing to do with students and, with some exceptions, everything to do with teachers trying to cover their inability to teach and/or test properly. (A big exception are small classes of nothing but brilliant people. I've had a few of those, and one where I was clearly the dumbest one there, and we all got A's and B's since we all mastered, or nearly mastered, the material and isn't that what the point is?)
10.4.2007 3:13pm
Temp Guest (mail):
One of the most onerous tasks that I face as an occasional university professor is developing criteria for assessing student performance and applying these criteria to calculate grades. I've perfected the following process: (1) assign pre-determined points to the perfect performance of each assigned activity (including a point or two for each class attended); (2) provide a table of what range of total points is associated with each final grade; (3) provide immediate feedback on the points given for each assignment so students knoiw exactly where they stand at all times. I still receive bitter complaints at the end of every semester from persons who did not perform as well as they had expected. Coincidentaly, much of my teaching experience has been at UMass.

In the ideal world, teachers would strive to teach, students would strive to learn, and independent testing and assessment systems would determine how well the members of each group performed their allotted tasks. In such an ideal system students would probably be suing professors for inadequate teaching if they didn't pass their independent assessment exams.
10.4.2007 3:13pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
Can anyone say explicitly why this shouldn't be a matter for courts?

Volume. Also, de minimis non curat lex
10.4.2007 3:15pm
Cory Olson (mail):
The papers were subjectively graded. Would he have felt any better if the professor simply reassigned the grades on a wider distribution, causing him to receive lower grades throughout the semester and then received his C? If so, what's the difference?

This reminds me of my CivPro final. The professor said the highest score was a 54/100. Does that mean we should have all failed? Of course not.

If this were a math class and he answered all the questions right in the same time it took all other students, he may have an argument. Now he just looks like a crybaby.
10.4.2007 3:20pm
The thing with tests is that sometimes it's impossible to design a test--even, for example, a multiple-choice physics test with a priori knowable right, numerical answers--that accurately measures student performance. Even if the professor believes that he has adequately covered and explained all the material, it's possible that the grades poorly reflect performance. There could be no grades above 80 out of 100, or all the grades could be between 80 and 90. These kinds of situations may reflect poor test design, poor learning/preparation by the students, and/or ineffective teaching by the professor. Given this, what's a professor to do?

My personal opinion is that a curve should never reduce the grade that would have been assigned without it. If students have been given a conversion formula from numerical scores to letter grades, then a curve is unfair and unjustifiable if it deviates downward from that formula. It may lead to some grade inflation, but it at least saves students from the nightmare of prescribed means and standard deviations and of non-normal distributions being coerced into normal ones. If a professor can't write a test that has, more or less, the distribution he wants, he shouldn't be penalizing students for their performance on the exam he set.

(I say all this having found myself on both sides of this issue in the last 10 years.)
10.4.2007 3:27pm
KeithK (mail):
Grading on curve makes no sense to me. Never has.

From my experience writing tests and test questions I find that you get a much better measurement of students relative abilities with a test where the average grade is 50% than with one where the average is 80%. The 80% test typically has a lot of easy filler material in order to guarantee that even the bad students get 60-70% of the test right. The 50% test is more likely to challenge the students throughout and allow the instructor to gauge the student's knowledge and thought process more accurately.

With a 50% mean score test you can't use the standard score groupings (91-100 = A, 81-90 = B, etc.). You have to either arbitrarily choose different groupings, which will be suspect unless you;ve taught the course and given similar exams for many years, or use a curve. Unless your class is quite large the grades probably won't fall in a normal distribution (and maybe not then) but statistical information like means and standard deviations are still very useful for setting the appropriate grade groupings.

Of course, my justification for curved grading doesn't apply when the mean score is high. If the test turns out to be relatively easy or your students exceed your expectations they should be given credit for that. Fortunately I never had a professor curve grades down.

Note: my experiences (both as a student and instructor) are mostly in math, the physical sciences and engineering.
10.4.2007 3:52pm
U.Va. 3L:
I wish I had thought of this back when I was an undergrad physics major who got a C in a curved QM class.

Too late now. ;)
10.4.2007 3:53pm
The TA seems to have handled the situation poorly.

But did any of you read the brief (which apparently was written by the student himself)? After reading that brief, I have grave doubts that he is capable of "A" work in anything.
10.4.2007 4:38pm
I don't think that grades should ever be adjusted down. It just seems unfair.

As someone who compiled grades for our Law Review's write on competition, I found this method to be quite helpful:
Norman Jacobson's "A method for normalizing students' scores when employing multiple graders."

Basically, this method lets each grader set their own "curve" or grading style, and then a formula brings everyone up to the level of the highest grader. No one is adjusted down, and almost everyone is adjusted up. After using this method, we could accurately rank students and decide who had the best scores without worrying about unfairness due to easy or hard graders.

I liked that we could rank students without imposing curves on their graders. (Of course, all of the graders had a curve of some sort that naturally arose from the student's performance. We considered that a good sign that the process worked well.)

I'm not sure if this method could accurately be imposed to an entire law school to account for different professor's grading styles, but it really worked for our writing competition.
10.4.2007 4:42pm
Traces (mail):
Perhaps I simply don't get the liberal arts mindset, but how is an arbitrary 80-90=B scale more fair in any sense than a grade assigned by fit to distribution? Is this not just an expectation to grade inflation?

Given that all distributions converge to a Gaussian by the central limit theorem, you can make an argument that grade by fit to Gaussian distribution is the only fundamentally fair way to rank anything.
10.4.2007 5:14pm
Armen (mail) (www):
Traces, I agree with you. In undergrad I had curved classes in one major, but subjective A, B, C classes in another. Let's just say the two crowds are different. Just look at the comments above. How many people just don't understand that it's ok to grade someone against his/her peers?
10.4.2007 5:57pm
MinnLaw1L (mail):
Regardless of the merits, the plaintiff's attorney misspelled "Parties" in the second caption of the complaint. Where is the proofreading?
10.4.2007 6:39pm
New Pseudonym (mail):

I guess you never got as far as the "summones." At least the defendants didn't make math errors.

What happens when the complaint doesn't state a claim, but the defendant's argument as to why it doesn't is wrong as a matter of law?

Depends on the judge. He can dismiss sua sponte if he wants, or he can stay withing the pleadings and rule against the defendants on the basis of their argument. Personally, I'd dismiss and scold the defendants' lawyers when I told them to draft the ruling and keep their argument out of it.

What the heck, call a settlement conference and give the kid a B minus. Isn't that what judges are really for? ;-)
10.4.2007 7:28pm
theobromophile (www):

Curving makes marginally more sense when assignments are subjectively graded rather than objectively graded.

Well, you've never taken a test where the average grade is a 57, the top grade is a 81, and the lowest grade is a 4. ;)

Most of my undergrad professors curved to a 2.5 GPA, so half the class got As and Bs, half Cs or below. Some were really generous and curved to a 3.0.

The only time problems arose was when the professors scaled the grades at the end of the class, not per test. Students had no idea what their grades were, because it changed every time someone dropped out. You could theoretically get B+s on every test and end up with a C.

Lesson for professors/TAs: don't curve at the end of the class. Curve every test or paper and let the final grades fall where they may.
10.4.2007 7:31pm
Public_Defender (mail):
The lawyers for the university deserve a C- (curved or uncurved) for their motion to dismiss. This is how they start it:

Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), the defendants University of Massachusetts Amherst
(“University”), John Lombardi, Charlena Seymour, Jo-Ann Vanin, Gladys Rodriguez, Catherine Porter,
Philip Bricker, and Jeremy Cushing (hereafter “University defendants”) submit this memorandum in
support of their motion to dismiss plaintiff’s complaint for failure to state a claim. The plaintiff, Brian
Marquis, has filed his multi-count lawsuit in federal court naming a host of University defendants, and the
wrong that he alleges that he has suffered is that he received the grade of “C” in a political philosophy
course at the University. In response to this “C”, Marquis has filed a federal court complaint consisting of 15 counts. The University defendants now move to dismiss this complaint. In addition, the defendant
Board of Trustees moves to dismiss this complaint for failure to complete service of process. Fed.R.Civ.P.

Ugh. Did you read all of that? I didn't think so.

Instead of spending most of the first sentence repeating the case caption in a less readable way, why not get to the freaking point? "Plaintiff Brian Marquis received a 'C' grade in political philosophy. He has no federal right to a better grade. This Court should dismiss his complaint."

On another note, the Boston Globe's website deserves kudos for posting key documents from the case. I wish more papers would do that when they cover legal cases.
10.4.2007 9:06pm
Mary (mail):

From what I can remember of college, "refus[ing] to do anything about it" is in the highest tradition of the academy.

My own little amusing story on curving:

There was a professor at my alma mater, and I had to take the course when he taught it. He said that he never curved. He would start with seventy students, end up with twenty, and flunk half.

It was rumored that he had had his grades handed back to him with instructions that he could not flunk that many people.

He also handed out the grading formula, and I went into the final knowing that if I got a zero, I got a D (very reassuring); a twenty-five, a C; a seventy-five, a B; and since there weren't twenty-five extra credit points, I couldn't get an A.

I got an A. I suspect that semester fed into the rumors about getting his grades handed back.
10.4.2007 10:02pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Regardless of the merits, the plaintiff's attorney misspelled "Parties" in the second caption of the complaint. Where is the proofreading?
Nowhere. There is no "plaintiff's attorney." It's a pro se complaint.
10.5.2007 3:09am
DiverDan (mail):
Just skimmed the Complaint. Anybody else see the rather obvious mathematical errors of this Plaintiff in Paragraph 16 of the Complaint? (1) 20% - 17.5% = 2.5%, NOT 3.5%, as Plaintiff claims; and (2) Plaintiff subtracts 13.5% from 100%, rather than the 95% which the tests (75%) and the papers (20%) comprised. In other words, the entire basis of his claim, that he got 92.5% of all possible points, which he claimed was necessarily worth an A, was based on miserably bath math skills. Not having reviewed his Papers or Tests, I can express no opinion regarding his grasp of the philosophical constructs coveredd during the Course, but if I were the hiring partner at a law firm, I'd bounce the guy just on his poor grasp of quantitative concepts, as evidenced by the poor math skills demonstrated by that Paragraph of his Complaint.
10.5.2007 1:54pm