Behind the B+ Median: Student and Faculty Thoughts on the Enforced Median

One writer explores how the economics and government departments distributively grade their students.

by Bennett Mosk | 11/8/23 2:15am

by Elaine Pu / The Dartmouth

Dartmouth’s grading system can differ depending on the department. The government department expects their professors — at least in non-seminar classes and classes with over ten students — to uphold a B+ median. Similarly, the economics department offers professors a suggested B+ median according to economics professor Elizabeth Curtis. In order to accomplish this, professors must grade on a curve, comparing students to others in the class to achieve the desired overall median. This practice has sparked countless debates regarding the validity of distributive grading and the value of achieving a top GPA.

For Rachel Horne ’24, a government major, and Madison Blanche ’24, an economics major, the pressure to have a top GPA has made classes, especially those with B+ medians, ultra-competitive. 

“I definitely think there’s a more intense, more focused energy in a lot of my government classes than I’ve seen in other departments,” Horne said. 

Blanche echoed Horne’s sentiments, remarking on how often stress derives from the lack of knowledge students have about how they stand in relation to the rest of their class, regardless of the number grade they see on Canvas. She lamented the fact that grades in these classes revolve around relative, rather than objective, success.

“A lot of times people will be really anxious about [their grade] the entire term because professors only break down the [grading] distribution towards the very end,” Blanche said. “So you’re always thinking, ‘Okay, I think I’m doing well, but I’m not sure if I’m far enough above the rest of my class to get an A or an A-.’”

Looking at the grade distributions by department, it would be hard to blame those students for their anxiety. In the spring of 2022, 8.97% of classes outside of the government or economics departments had a B+ median or below, and no other departments had more than five B+ median or below classes. For the government department, 45.16% of classes, or all classes besides the seminar classes and one section of GOVT 5, had a B+ median. In the economics department, 41.18% of classes had a B+ median or worse. 

However, government department head Benjamin Valentino, as well as Curtis assert that these purported externalities are far less serious than regularly assumed by students.

According to Curtis, the consensus surrounding the economics department’s grading policy is often misconstrued. Unlike the widely rumored department-wide enforced median, the economics department instead offers professors a suggested median. This median is meant merely to demonstrate to incoming faculty, who may have taught elsewhere or never before, generally how difficult to make their classes. That way, a student who receives a 93 in ECON 1 class should be fairly comparable to a student who receives the same grade in another.

“We recommend the guideline, but it's really for internal purposes,” Curtis said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the external. I think the problem is we start talking about it and then that students kind of hook right up to ‘This is how they skew all of the grades.’” 

Curtis assured that in her economics class, she does not ever surprise excelling students with lower-than-expected grades. 

“There’s no surprises at the end. It’s not, ‘Oh, I’m gonna fit you in a bucket because that bucket has to be 20 students big,” she said. “That’s not the way most of us grade, and most of us feel very strongly that we give you the grade that you have earned within the framework we’ve set up.”

Valentino noted that despite the Dartmouth government department website stating clearly “Except under extraordinary circumstances, median grades in GOVT courses will not exceed A- in seminars, and B+ in all other courses,” the department often does allow exceptions to avoid curving students downward, and almost always uses the median to curve students upwards.

“It’s just easier to make the test a little bit harder and then curve up than make it too easy and curve down. I’m sure [downward curving] has happened, but that's not at all the norm in the department,” Valentino said. 

Government major Luke Marshall ’24 felt that the constant B+ median was somewhat reassuring, because “with [government courses], going into it, you know it’s going to be a B+ median. It’s somewhat like a safety net.”

Blanche and Horne still had concerns that the B+ medians made classes seem inaccessible. For Horne, the idea of a “weed-out class” was frustrating, and noted that often it kept friends and fellow students from even attempting to dip their toes into these departments.

“So many people check Layup List, and use that to heavily influence what classes they’re gonna take. They might avoid a class that they seem really interested in, or one that might be more beneficial to their learning, in order to boost their GPA with a really easy layup,” Blanche said.

Curtis, too, was disappointed by this notion.

“We don’t want to have our median grade be the thing that deters people from studying economics. I don’t want that to be the case. We would love to have anybody who wants to try our field to try it. We don’t want that to be a barrier for people to just try Economics 1,” she said. 

However, Curtis emphasized that hard classes are an integral part of Dartmouth.On top of that, she added that the demanding Dartmouth curriculum is part of what makes Dartmouth students attractive to future employers. 

“When you leave here, when [your resume] says that you’re a Dartmouth grad, [your employer] should know that you have learned a bunch of stuff,” she said. “We haven’t done our job right if we haven’t prepared you for that.” 

Curtis asserted that the focus of the core economics courses does not need to be getting an A. It needs to be to learn as much as possible, and to prepare oneself for both the upper level Economics courses, and further, success in the workforce. She also says that many non-core economics courses do not require any prerequisites, and do not follow the B+ guidelines, and thus are a great option for students interested in dipping their toes into the world of economics without the pressure of the core classes. 

Horne did concede that “the median does incentivize students to work harder because you really have to distinguish yourself compared to your peers to get a higher grade. That’s the biggest impact.”

According to Valentino, the B+ median acts as a safeguard against an ever-present collective action problem in higher education: grade inflation.

“I think it really doesn’t make sense to leave it up to the individual professor to pick their median. And the reason for that is that it is easier to give higher grades to our students because students then complain less about the grades,” Valentino said. In 2007, the cutoff to graduate cum laude, or in the top 35% of one’s class, was a 3.61. In 2023, the cutoff was a 3.79.

Valentino points out that as professors continually feel incentivized to give more As, grades become increasingly useless. In the other departments, Valentino remarked that it would almost make more sense to grade pass-fail than using traditional letter grades, given that they are not able to differentiate between students anyway.

Conversation surrounding the B+ median can be divisive. For the economics and government departments, the median successfully puts grade inflation on hold, and acts as a strong guideline for professors to retain academic standards. For many, however, the competitive atmosphere, the relative aspect to grading, and the difficulty for professors outweigh the positives.