OPINION: Eliminate the zero-sum game of quota grading

Drawing of people running towards an 'A'
(Laura Jaramillo • The Student Life)

Grades should objectively measure student performance — until they don’t. Instead of the conventional system of 90 percent and above is an A, 80 percent and above is a B, and so on, some schools use a quota grading system where students are pitted against each other in a zero-sum competition for academic success.

In many schools around the country, like UC Berkeley and previously Harvard University, students must navigate a seemingly counterintuitive grading system. Specifically, grades are percentile-based: for example, a certain percentage get A’s, another get B’s and another get C’s. In this way, no matter how well the student body as a whole has mastered the material, the grade distribution cannot change. The system is relative, meaning that students are graded based on their comparative performance to other students in their class.

Unfortunately, such a system endangers the spirit of a healthy education. Having a quota system for grading can discourage cooperation, and even encourage a culture of toxic competition. If students know that someone’s A can mean their own B, they are less inclined to assist their peers in that class, afraid that it may ruin their chances of a good grade. In the worst case, it may even encourage sabotage, as students become increasingly desperate to save their GPA. 

I’ll concede that the philosophy behind this schema has some logic: if all students continue to receive A’s, the class is clearly too easy, and students would no longer be motivated to work hard. On the other hand, if the class is too difficult, it would be impossible for all students to fail, since some must still receive A’s in accordance with the quota. Ideally, this autobalances the difficulty of the class, meaning performance isn’t skewed by abnormally rigorous or trivial classes. 

However, this concept can lead to a slippery slope, where students work hard to improve endlessly. Hypothetically, if every student in a class continues to improve, performance is increasing overall, but students’ aggregate grades are staying the same. This makes little sense, as students should be rewarded for increasing net effort, not punished for doing so as a whole group. 

Some may also argue that this system allows teachers to rank students against each other, allowing them to differentiate between students and their performances. Yet, there’s no reason to do this in a way that affects students’ actual grades; rather, teachers can do this privately while still rewarding students for their hard work.

A supposedly collaborative school like Harvey Mudd College would be the last place you’d think to find a quota grading system. Yet, in the mandatory frosh Writing 1 class, it is rumored that this is likely the case. Since Writ 1 is a pass/fail class, the idea is that students who fail must take the Writing 1E class next semester to further improve their writing. It could be said that there must be enough students in Writ 1E to justify hosting the class, meaning the professors must fail at least a certain number of students to ensure Writ 1E doesn’t consist of just one or two students; though professors have never made this grading schema explicit, the perception of its existence and the failure so far to debunk it still has damaging effects.

Luckily, even with this in mind, I haven’t heard or experienced any Mudd students fiercely competing against or sabotaging each other in Writ 1. Maybe it’s because the highly cooperative culture of Mudd students heavily outweighs the effects of the system. Or, more dangerously, this may only be due to the uncertain nature of the grading policy. In other words, if it was confirmed that Writ 1 used a quota system, the response from students may be far different. To eliminate this worry, HMC Writ 1 professors should make their grading system clear, debunking the myth of the quota system (of course, if it really is a myth). However, if it’s true that a certain number of students must fail Writ 1, they should reconsider their system — before students start rethinking their approach to education.

Serena Mao HM ’25 is from Fremont, California. Don’t worry, she’s still helping her friends out in Writ 1. 

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