Absolute vs Relative Grading

Grading is a concept that almost no two teachers agree upon. Some believe in including effort while others believe only performance should be considered. Some believe in many A’s while others believe A’s should be rare.

In this post, we will look at absolute and relative grading and how these two ideas can be applied in an academic setting.

Absolute Grading

Absolute grading involves the teacher pre-specifying the standards for performance. For example, a common absolute grading scale would be

A = 90-100
B = 80-89
C = 70-79
D = 60-69
F = 0-59

Whatever score the student earns is their grade.  There are no adjustments made to their grade. For example, if everyone gets a score between 90-100 everyone gets an “A” or if everyone gets below 59 everyone gets an “F.” The absolute nature of absolute grading makes it inflexible and constraining for unique situations.

Relative Grading

Relative grading allows for the teacher to interpret the results of an assessment and determine grades based on student performance. One example of this is grading “on the curve.” In this approach, the grades of an assessment are forced to fit a “bell curve” no matter what the distribution is. A hard grade to the curve would look as follows.

A = Top 10% of students
B = Next 25% of students
C = Middle 30% of students
D = Next 25% of students
F = Bottom 10% of students

As such, if the entire class had a score on an exam between 90-100% using relative grading would still create a distribution that is balanced. Whether this is fair or not is another discussion.

Some teachers will divide the class grades by quartiles with a spread from A-D. Others will use the highest grade achieved by an individual student as the A grade and mark other students based on the performance of the best student.

There are times when institutions would set the policy for relative grading. For example, in a graduate school, you may see the following grading scale.

A = top 60%
B = next 30%
C = next 10%
D, F = Should never happen

the philosophy behind this is that in graduate school all the students are excellent so the grades should be better. Earning a “C” is the same as earning an “F.” Earning a “D” or “F” often leads to removal from the program.

Grading Philosophy

There will never be agreement on how to grade. Coming from different backgrounds makes this challenging. For example, some cultures believe that the teacher should prepare the students for exams while others do not. Some cultures believe in self-assessment while others do not. Some cultures believe in a massive summative exam while others do not

In addition, many believe that grades are objective when there is little evidence to support this in academic research. A teacher who thinks students are low performers gives out such grades even if the students are high achievers.

As such, the most reasonable approach is for a school to discuss grading policies and lay out the school’s approach to grading to reduce confusion even if it does not reduce frustration.


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