Grading on a Curve

Mark Thoma has a great analogy for the stress tests. He picks up on this statement by Tim Geithner:

Some might argue that this testing was overly punitive, while others might claim it could understate the potential need for additional capital. The test designed by the Federal Reserve and the supervisors sought to strike the right balance.

Then this is Thoma:

I’ve given a lot of tests over the years, and I can pretty much make the mean on a test come out how I want through the design of the questions and how I score the answers. If I want a mean of 70, or around there, I can get it, and if a mean of 50 is the target, that’s possible too. . . .

If we choose a score of “70″ as the dividing point between being solvent and being insolvent, then the percentage of banks passing the test is a function of the difficulty of the stress test: how the items on the balance sheets – the answers to the questions – are interpreted.

The whole thing is a fun read. I don’t think it’s a crucial point, but I like this part of the analogy:

Why did the government negotiate the outcome with banks and how lenient were they in those negotiations? There are always students who want to argue about the result of a test, to have sections regraded, and how you respond to attempts to “negotiate” a grade can affect the percentage passing the class, particularly when – as with the stress tests – there aren’t a lot of students/banks taking the test.

Originally published at the Baseline Scenario and reproduced here with the author’s permission.