The Bell Curve in Elementary

Are you happy when you grade a class set of tests and then average out the class score and it lands somewhere in the 70 percent range? It feels good doesn’t it? You feel like you have done your job as a teacher. You taught the unit, some students took in the knowledge you were presenting and soared and others…well others, I guess just showed their true colors. As you punched in the final calculations and you realized that the class average was around a B or B-, you felt as though you served your purpose as an educator in that round of curriculum standards. That little bell curve, where you had an “equitable” margin of difference between your “haves” and “have-nots”, was somewhat linear. When you looked at your boxed-list of students and saw an equal proportion of 90s, 80s, 70s, 60s (and below), you felt as though you attained exactly what you were in that classroom to do – decipher the kids that get it from the ones that don’t. Of course, all for the greater purpose of future academic and educational endeavors that these students may or may not pursue. When you were done and the class average was 70, it almost made you feel like a university professor, didn’t it?


I felt like this before. Shoot, I still feel like this at times in my role as a rotary teacher. See the grades, see the evened-out fluctuation of good and not-so-good ones, and consider my job done. But then I mark a set of math tests. Not just any ordinary set of tests. These tests were labored over by my own students. The kids in my homeroom. The students I see daily for at least half the school day. The students I know by first and last name, parent circumstance and all that other background info that goes into my assessment of them. And when I grade a class set of tests coming from my own students, I am sorry to say but I don’t get that “job well done, teacher” feeling. What I am suggesting is that when the class average is 70, I have failed.


I take a little bit more time when grading the work of students I have a strong connection with. I do look at the name of the student before I sit down and grade the test. I give half marks when I know the answer is wrong but I can see how the thinking was in the right place but led to a wrong final answer. When a student is bombing, I stop grading. I simply write at the top of the test, “Let’s work on this together tomorrow.” I am not okay with a student getting a 60 even though I know it will balance out my class average. In the most black and white class, math, my students get descriptive feedback. Not in the new-wave regimented sense of the term, but through the old-school, caring, “I’m grading this test now but these few words would be said  if I was sitting with you and grading this test right in front of you” way.


So, I wonder why we are looking for that curve when we say we want all our students to be successful? I do understand that 70 percent is, in fact, success to some of our students. But shoot, I only teach elementary school; I am in the game of instilling basic easy-peasy pudding type intellectual objectives. Multiplying, fractions, integers…that type of stuff. Nothing crazy conceptually. So as a teacher of younger students, I cannot be satisfied with a bell curve. Actually, I see no issues with all of my students getting 100 percent test after test.


I guess the question is how? How do I turn 25 out of 25 students into A plus masters of the discipline I teach. That answer would involve much more analysis that dives into the nature of schooling, test re-taking and lesson re-teaching, the acknowledgement of my mistakes as an educator (oh, don’t go there!) and many other things. The bottom line is this: the marginal class average is thought to be a sign of good teaching, but I would definitely second guess that whole idea. I mean, I second guess it every time I grade a class set of work and see that some students get it and others don’t. Perhaps the focus these days should shift from the student and his flaws to the teacher and all the flaws that we bring to the classroom, lesson in and lesson out.


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Matthew R. Morris

Educator, Speaker, Writer

Matthew R. Morris is a writer, speaker, and elementary educator in Toronto. He has an M.A. in Social Justice Education from OISE at the University of Toronto and is the author of the forthcoming book, Black Boys Like Me. 

Matthew R. Morris

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