I'm not one of those mythical teachers who likes to put trick questions on a test or quiz so everybody flunks. My assumption is that I could probably write an assessment that the vast majority of my students would fail--but what's the point in that? I teach the material, and then assess to see if the students learned what they were supposed to have learned.
What's a "reasonable" grade distribution in a class? (Not that I'll get into it here, but I'm in sort of a "debate" with a parent about just that topic in one of the courses I teach.) I both teach to and assess to a standard; thus, it's possible that every student could get an A, and also possible that every student could get an F. In that latter case I'd have to reflect and determine if poor teaching on my part was to blame for the poor result, but what about the former case? If everyone got an A, would that mean my standards were too low?
Not necessarily. I teach two types of courses, spanning the academic abilities of my school's students. In two of the three courses I teach, most of the students are college-bound and thus are expected to do well. In two of the three courses I teach, the vast majority of the students are seniors and often take "senioritis" to new heights. In one of the courses I teach, the academic level is about that of upper elementary school or at most 7th grade. I doubt anyone would expect the grade distribution in that class to be the same as the grade distribution of a class of college-bound students. Remember, the content of that last class is already low, I don't need to make a mockery of it by not expecting students to meet even those low standards.
So in one of my heavily senior, college-bound classes yesterday, I gave a quiz. Of the 22 students in that class, 5 received an A+, 5 received an A-, and 8 received F's. As I've discussed with teacher friends in other departments, this "upside-down normal curve" distribution is a common one.
Almost half the students in the class got an A, and almost as many scored an F. Does that sound like an issue of poor teaching? It's clear that the material was put out. Does it sound like an issue of a poor quiz? Again, it doesn't appear that the material was at all out of reach of the students--unless you think that most students should get an A, and that I taught primarily to only the A students.
Some people say that if almost half my students got an A, that the quiz was too easy. I don't agree with that. The material wasn't very difficult, but it is important foundational material for the rest of the semester--that's why I quizzed it, to make sure students understood it, and the quiz involved nothing more and nothing less than what we'd gone over in class. To be blunt (and I was told this by more than one applicable student), those who failed did so mostly because they didn't study at all, and thus couldn't remember all the steps that went into the topic material.
That's what other teachers are seeing, too, and not just math teachers--this "upside-down normal curve", where there are a lot of A's and a lot of F's and not much in between. In many cases it is a case of lowered standards--unless you think A's should be the most common grade in a class--and those who fail often do so because they put in no effort at all.
Some teachers have a real problem with giving a lot of low grades. They'll lower standards in order to "get the grades up", but all that does is lower standards for everyone. Those who fail due to lack of effort will fail due to lack of effort no matter if the standard is high or low. Those at the top with high standards will also be at the top with low standards. And a student who will do just enough to get by will do that with high standards or with low standards. Those students who try, though, get higher grades when you lower standards. Thus, the B's and C's get pushed up to A's, but the bottom grades stay where they are.
I resist lowering standards. Today's academic standards are not as high as they were 20 years ago, despite what the Common Core zealots will tell you, so what I teach isn't as rigorous as it was 20 years ago. Does anyone deny that lower standards, and the grade inflation they help bring about, are an issue in education? And yet, still so many failing grades.
I have no doubt that the results of this chapter's test will be better than the results of this one quiz. Still, though, the "upside-down normal curve" issue isn't going away any time soon.