The ‘Stern Curve’

Photo courtesy of NYU Stern.

Written by SM Dipali

“At NYU Stern, we strive to create courses that challenge students intellectually and that meet the Stern standards of academic excellence. To ensure fairness and clarity of grading, the Stern faculty have adopted a grading guideline for core courses with enrollments of more than 25 students in which approximately 35% of students will receive an A or A- grade.”

It’s a dreary October afternoon in T-200, and Professor Cecilia Parlatore’s Corporate Finance class is bustling with activity. The Morgan Stanley firm-wide recruiting event at 7 pm has half the room in suits, the other half working on assignments for other classes. It’s the peak of midterm season, and, combined with the stress of junior-year recruiting, the room looks collectively exhausted. To make matters more stressful, rumor has it that midterm grades will be distributed today.

Within moments, the rumors are confirmed. “Your midterm grades are posted online under gradebook,” announces Professor Parlatore at the beginning of class. What ensues is typical: students frantically search for their phones and open NYU classes, inwardly praying for the “A.” After all, most students exited the exam feeling confident about their performance – the consensus was that the test was “easy.”

The next step? Students begin to create a context for their grade. In hushed tones across the classroom, students confer with their peers: “What did you get?” “I heard you needed a 99/110 to get an A.” Then, almost as if on cue, “Wait, this class is Stern Curved, right?”

Infamously dubbed as the “Stern Curve” by the undergraduate student body, Stern’s grading guidelines outline the number of students allowed to receive an A or A- in core courses of more than 25 students. As explicitly written in Stern’s academic policy, approximately 35% of the classroom can receive an “A or A- grade,” in order to “ensure fairness and the clarity of grading.” Since its initial implementation in the late 1980s, the “Stern Curve” has elicited many passionate, and often negative, reactions from students and faculty alike.

“I grew up in a nearby town in New Jersey, and even as a high school student, I knew about the Stern Curve. Everyone knew about it, and for many, it influenced their decision not to attend the school,” said Mausum Shah, a junior studying Finance and Marketing.

The language as it exists currently was last revised in the spring of 2013 by a committee of undergraduate Stern professors. In an effort to create uniformity across sections of core courses, the faculty examined grading data from prior years. They found what Dean Rohit Deo, the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, calls a “natural variation around 35%.”

“We believe that an approximation of 35% is generous, but constitutes a reasonable academic standard by which our students are measured,” said Dean Deo.

This emphasis on the word “approximate” is telling. While the language suggests a certain allocation, the grading system does allow professors to file grades that do not adhere to this 35% benchmark. Indeed, a professor teaching a core course can finalize grades with 50% of the class receiving “A” grades.

“These policies are rough guidelines, not rules. Even the word ‘curve’ is a misnomer. There is no curve. We have drafted no formal language providing guidance on the allocation of grades beyond the top percentage. We do not require professors to hand out a certain amount of ‘B’ grades or ‘C’ grades,” said Professor Bruce Buchanan, who served on the committee of undergraduate professors which drafted the current policies.

Many students believe that the rationale behind the official language is to combat grade inflation, an academic system which increases the average grade assigned to students. In recent years, students and faculty alike have pushed the topic of grade inflation into the national conversation. In a piece regarding the continuing problem of grade inflation, The Harvard Crimson uncovered a notable statistic: the median grade awarded at the prestigious university is an A-.

While certainly astonishing, this statistic is indicative of a greater trend in higher education. According to research by Diane Dean, an associate professor for high education administration at Illinois State University, and Arthur Levine, president emeritus of Teachers College of Columbia University, 7% of undergraduates nationwide had grades of A- or higher in 1979. In stark contrast, 41% of students in 2013 boasted grades of A- of higher. In the same vain, grades of C or less dropped from 25% to 5%.

This “inflation” led to a slew of problems. The same study found that three out five undergraduates believe their inflated grades indicate their true academic acumen – a skewed self-awareness that ultimately affects a student’s professional experiences later in life.

“I often hear fellow students complaining about the ‘Stern Curve’ and the disadvantages to this method. However, it simply ensures that every student’s grade is meaningful. While there are moments when I am unhappy with my scaled scores, I still find that it is a useful method to combat grade inflation,” said Megna Narasimhan, a junior majoring in Finance and International Business.

However, the faculty and administration both note a different motive behind the policy: fairness across sections.

“The reasoning behind the grading policies has nothing to do with grade inflation. It’s about equity across sections of the same course. For example in Law, Business and Society, we have 18 sections for the course. We want to make sure each student has a fair shot no matter which professor he or she gets,” said Professor Buchanan.

Stern requires students to take certain core courses, such as Law, Business, and Society. The school administers these courses through multiple sections taught by multiple professors. As such, the faculty who drafted the grading policies wanted to ensure more uniformity across sections of the same required course. For this reason, elective courses are not held to the same standards – simply because there are fewer sections of the same course, and often times those sections are taught by the same professor.

Despite the aforementioned merits of a scaling system, some argue that guidelines impose an arbitrary requirement that may not align with a professor’s professional and experienced judgment. Interestingly, the administration has not struggled with any resistance from Stern undergraduate professors.

“We’ve received no push back from faculty, and I think that’s because we went through a process. We gave faculty the chance to give their input, and ultimately the policies were voted upon by the faculty, themselves,” said Dean Deo.

Venturing across Gould Plaza, other New York University colleges do not impose such official grading guidelines. While some courses are curved, the administration grants each professor the flexibility to use his or her judgment when grading.

However, Dean Deo stresses that other NYU colleges may not be the best point for comparison. The administration, instead, constantly benchmarks Stern against other undergraduate business schools.

Most notable is the Wharton School of Business. A similarly prestigious undergraduate program, Wharton also created specific grading policies for core courses. Faculty within each discipline, such as Marketing, Management, and Finance, create policies for their respective core courses. For example, one course may award As to 30% of the class, Bs to 40%, and Cs to 30%, while another may allocate grades differently. This type of policy differs from Stern’s grading guidelines in one critical way: it imposes an allocation for the bottom percentage of the class. According to Sindhu Pagadala, a freshman at Wharton, upperclassmen have been in talks with the administration in an effort to repeal the policies.

But there are further consequences to consider – the implications of imposed grading guidelines extend far beyond exams scores and GPAs. Many argue that a competitive grading procedure fosters an equally competitive student body.

The psychology of an individual student could explain this phenomenon. Studies have shown that grading curves affect certain segments of a student population differently. In her article “Competition and the Curve,” Professor Barabara Fines, a law professor at the University of Missouri, separates students into two learning styles: field independent and field dependent.

“Field independent” students tend to prefer autonomy and directing their own learning. Fines argues that these students thrive in a competitive environment, finding it a motivating force in their studies. On the other hand, “field dependent” students rely on structure and receiving direction. Competitive grading environments can negatively affect these students, who are especially influenced by “expressions of confidence or doubt.”

In a school filled with driven and passionate students, full of individuals who may likely classify as “field independent,” it is difficult to determine how much the grading guidelines actually contribute to Stern’s competitive student environment.

Imprinted across the glass walls of the third floor lounge is Stern’s inescapable buzz word: collaboration. The administration and faculty constantly stress the importance of collaboration in an academic environment, and the majority of courses require collaboration during group projects. But the use of enforced grading guidelines begs the question: can true collaboration exist in an environment marked by intense competitiveness?

“I think the Stern Curve does create a competitive classroom and campus environment. Some would argue that this competitive environment prepares students for the real world work environment. However, I think that as part of our preparation for that experience, Stern should be teaching us to work together and, when possible, help our peers reach success, rather than pitting us against each other from the beginning and creating a zero-sum game in which our success is contingent upon someone else’s failure,” said Abigail Shepard, a sophomore studying Finance and Economics.

However, some members of the faculty argue otherwise. “We’re not admitting sheep and turning them into wolves because of the grading curve. The students that apply to Stern are high energy, ambitious in a good way, and are inherently competitive,” said Professor Buchanan.

He further notes, “A lot of people are sincerely working to create a culture that is fair – and we are trying to achieve this through the grading policies. A culture that is fair is a culture that is healthy.”

While the grading policy is indeed plagued by misconceptions and anxiety, “high energy” and “ambitious” students will always have a tendency to voice their concerns – and loudly. Stern is sure to see more curve balls to this issue in the future.

2 Comments on The ‘Stern Curve’

  1. Business is a joke // November 3, 2015 at 9:34 pm // Reply

    35% is a joke, STEM majors usually curve the A around a standard deviation above average – that’s less than 20%.

  2. ^sis, only 10% of sternies get A’s in a class

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