No bell curve grading in national exams, most universities

17 Jun 2019

ST, 17 Jun 2019, No bell curve grading in national exams, most universities
Bell curve grading is not used in any of the national examinations - the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), N levels, O levels and A levels - in Singapore, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has said.
A spokesman for the ministry told The Straits Times: "School-based assessments and national examinations are standards-referenced, where the grades awarded reflect a candidate's own level of mastery in the subject based on an absolute set of standards."
This means a student's grades are not dependent on how well he performs in comparison with his peers.
In a grading system based on a bell curve, fixed proportions of students attain the various grades.
Of the six autonomous universities, only the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) still moderate results using a bell curve for certain modules.
The other four - Singapore Management University (SMU), Singapore University of Technology and Design, Singapore University of Social Sciences and the Singapore Institute of Technology - do not use a bell curve system to grade students.
The issue of grading practices came under the spotlight late last month when SMU had to review the grades for a module taken by 169 business students. The lecturer, Professor Stefano Harney, had given all of them an A grade.
The SMU said that while it does not use a bell curve, there are guidelines for faculty members to refer to when grading, to ensure "fairness and consistency".
Prof Harney, however, had said the guidelines "are really rules - that no matter how many students do well, the number of As is strictly limited to a third of the class".
"These are fake ways to make your course seem serious. The real way is through deep engagement with the materials, ideas and ourselves," said Prof Harney, who has been at SMU since 2012 and is the professor of strategic management at its Lee Kong Chian School of Business. He was informed in April, before the incident, that his contract would not be renewed, and he is due to leave on June 30.
The MOE spokesman said that while students' examination scores are not "force fitted" into a bell curve, there is a tendency, among a large group of students, to have "natural variation in the level of mastery".
"It just means that students' performances tend to fall into a bell curve, if the assessment has been set appropriately to differentiate performance," he added.
NUS senior vice-provost (undergraduate education) Bernard Tan referenced the same scenario, adding that the university thus uses the bell curve "as a means to moderate grades, and as a guideline to prevent grade inflation or deflation".
"However, we apply the recommended grade distribution with some flexibility and discretion," he said.
For instance, in an honours class where the average Cumulative Average Point score of students is high, the grade distribution can be skewed higher to help differentiate students' performance.
NTU deputy provost (education) Kam Chan Hin said there are no caps on the number of students who can attain an honours classification.
This is also the case at NUS.
However, Yale-NUS, which adopted the Latin honours system, has a 35 per cent cap, according to undergraduate regulations last updated in March.
The Latin honours is on top of the bachelor's honours degree in arts or science that all students receive after completing the four-year undergraduate honours programme.
The system, which indicates the level of distinction a graduate has earned, uses nomenclature such as summa cum laude and magna cum laude. It is used by American universities such as Harvard and Yale.
The SMU also uses these terms, though it does not have a cap.
At Yale-NUS, the top 5 per cent of students are awarded summa cum laude. Magna cum laude goes to not more than the next 10 per cent, and cum laude to not more than the next 20 per cent.
There is also a cap within each major - no more than 60 per cent or six of the students - whichever is larger - will receive honours at the cum laude level or above.
No more than 40 per cent or four of the students - whichever is larger - will receive honours at the magna cum laude level or above.
Yale-NUS second-year literature student Adeline Loh, 21, said students are generally not graded on a bell curve there as classes are much smaller in size compared with those at NUS.
According to information available on the NUS law faculty's website, its students are graded differently.
The bell curve is used as a guide in a class of "reasonable size", referring to 20 or more students, in the following manner: 20 per cent to 25 per cent to get A+, A or A-; 35 per cent to 40 per cent to get B+ or B; 35 per cent to 40 per cent to get B-, C+ or C; and 0 per cent to 5 per cent to get D+, D or F.
As a result, the average grade in a class of reasonable size will be around B, the website said. "This should be contrasted to the situation in many other law schools, particularly in the United States, where the average grade tends to be around a B+ or even higher."
First class honours are awarded to students who obtain a cumulative weighted numerical average for all modules taken at NUS equivalent to a grade of A-or better; or finish in the top 10 per cent of their class.
This applies to students who matriculated in or after the academic year 2018/19.
NUS' Professor Tan defended the bell curve, citing other institutions in the US and Asia that use it to moderate marks.
"Student assessment is an important part of teaching and learning as it provides useful feedback to both students and instructors about the extent to which course learning objectives are met," he added.
Dr Kelvin Seah, an economics lecturer at NUS, also pointed out the benefits to relative grading at higher levels such as in university, a time when students are about to enter the workforce.
Absolute grading may not be as appropriate as it takes away from employers a "valuable signal, however imperfect, of a person's likely productivity", said Dr Seah. "Employers will have to look to other measures, such as conducting case-based interviews or task-oriented assessments, which can be costly, as a way to differentiate between candidates."
But he acknowledged that the bell curve may induce competition among students and lead to greater rivalry and stress - a common argument against this grading system.
"The better their peers do, the worse grades they will receive."
At lower levels such as in primary and secondary schools, this could discourage students from collaborating with and helping one another, said Dr Seah.
Explaining how the PSLE is currently graded, the MOE spokesman said: "The T-score uses a statistical method to represent how well a student has done in relation to his or her peers. The T-scores themselves are not forced into a bell curve."
In 2016, the ministry had announced a revamp to this scoring system, which kicks in from 2021.
Pupils will be graded on each of their four subjects using wider scoring bands, and their scores will no longer depend on how they do relative to one another.
For fourth-year engineering student Madura Senadeera of the Queensland University of Technology, whose year-long exchange stint in NTU ended last month, the bell curve is an unfamiliar concept.
In Australia, his university has fixed standards where a certain mark is affixed to each grade, regardless of how others do, he said.
"If many students do well, they would make the module more challenging moving forward. If many do poorly, a thorough investigation would be done into the teaching of the module," said Mr Senadeera, 20.
"There seems to be a very competitive environment in Singapore - everyone is hoping to do better than their friends, even if they do not say it aloud. It's extremely low-key, but there seems to be a negative vibe."
Final-year NTU sociology student Yap Duan Feng, 24, said: "The bell curve was adopted to maintain academic competitiveness and reward effort. But if taken too far, it can create a zero-sum game where students do well at the expense of others, and may foster overly competitive classrooms."