While grading students on a bell curve may make some sense in a college setting, it's a harmful system for measuring the comprehension and knowledge of younger students. The bell curve was designed to determine where each student ranked in relation to the rest of the group, but each child has a unique mind that is developing at its own rate and understands things in its own time and therefore, to compare a child's ability to those of his peers defies common sense.
Would we punish a baby for walking later than other babies of the same age? No, it would be considered a cruel act if we did, because a child can only walk when he is ready to walk and not a minute sooner. But, when it comes to testing a child for his academic abilities, which depend upon the individual development of the mind and the child's natural aptitudes--neither of which he has any control over--we see no harm in punishing the child in the form of low grades.
Grades do affect a child's level of self-confidence and how he views his ability to learn and therefore the low grades, if they continue, may eventually become a self-fulfilling prophecy. What if our otherwise perfectly intelligent but young child gets one of the worst scores in his reading class?
Studies such as Double Jeopardy by Donald J. Hernandez, show that poor reading in the early grades is a prime indicator for the likelihood of the child becoming a high school drop-out. However, science has proven that children are not ready to read until their right and left brains communicate effectively which, on the "average," begins around age seven. For some children it will be earlier and for some it will be later according to the ripening of their individual minds. To expect a child to read with comprehension before this age is like expecting an elephant to walk a tightrope! Some children may be able to ace the reading test, at least in relation to their peers, but some won't.
Reading requires comprehension and this comes between the ages of six to eight for most children, with more girls being on the earlier side of reading than boys. My concern is that if we allow our children to be pegged with such labels as a "slow reader" or even a "slow math student" in elementary school when they feel degraded by this, as many of them do, why should they try harder later? Many children will give up when they are discouraged, just like we do, and we have the statistics to prove this is what is happening to a significant number of our children today.
I have a friend's son that I started teaching English grammar to. The other day I was explaining a new concept to him, but he was having difficulty grasping it. What struck me of most interest is that this boy is brilliant. He has one of the quickest, sharpest minds I've encountered and I would have expected him to find the lesson easy, but he didn't. In his case, with a little more time he was able to understand it. However, I found myself wondering about the thousands of intelligent children who have been doomed by low grades for failing to learn on cue what their minds were not quite ready to grasp?
According to what Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, many student's that do poorly in school may be the result of nothing more than having a birthday that placed them amongst the younger and therefore less mature students in their class.
The surest road to academic success then, would be to establish schools that will allow our children to learn at their own pace, or to homeschool our children where this will happen naturally.