The conundrum of grading…

I was recently part of a fascinating discussion on philosophy of grading.  Very experienced and dedicated teachers fell all over the spectrum on approach, purpose, and flexibility.  It seems simple on the surface.  Do X amount of work, exhibit Y amount of learning, get Z grade.  Beneath that simple surface is a murky, muddy swamp of challenges.

What is the purpose of a grade?  While it can be both motivator and punishment, it is primarily used for evaluation.  It is supposed to indicate an amount of mastery of a subject.  A C might indicate a basic working knowledge of biology or statistics or British romantic poets.  An A  would indicate a strong and deep understanding of those subjects.  And we arrive at the first conundrum…who is giving those grades?  Is their scale the same as ours?  The second conundrum is implicit.  It is very possible that the C student has the same strong and deep understanding of the subject as the A student but didn’t bother to turn in a paper, or just had a bad day during final exams.  So, the grade is already muddied.  It is not just an indicator of subject knowledge.  It is also an indicator of work completed.

Interestingly, the grade as evaluation tool is for the academic institutions’ use (Have you learned enough basic chemistry that you’ll be able to grasp organic chem?  Have you exhibited enough learning and work that we’ll let you into our law school?), but it is the students who really focus on it.  “Will this affect my grade?”  “Is this going to be graded?”  While there may be some fields where employers consider collegiate performance, most do not.  Over the course of my career I hired hundreds of people and interviewed thousands.  I never once asked what grade someone received in English 101.  Grades really only matter if you’re continuing your education.  The old joke goes, “What do you call the person who graduated at the bottom of his class in Med. school?  Doctor.”

It is easy for me to tell my students that I care more about what they learn than what grade they earn.  The grade matters to them because they want to get into nursing school or just for their own measurement of self worth.  The fact that we have ingrained in students a connection between value as a person and a letter grade is itself a massive topic of concern.  So, the act of grading becomes a grave responsibility.

Students rightfully expect grading to be fair and objective.  It isn’t.  The best I can do as an educator is strive to be as fair and objective as possible, but what I think is critical is to also be consistent.  I primarily teach English courses, and I grade lots of essays.  I create detailed rubrics delineating what I am analyzing and what makes a specific element good, bad, or mediocre.  At the end of the day, it is still me, with all my biases, deciding if, for example, a student’s thesis statement is clearly stated, provocative, and relevant.  What if I’m in a bad mood the day I’m grading?  What if I really like or dislike particular students? (Yes, it’s true.  Teachers are human.)  I try to be very cognizant of such factors and take steps to neutralize them, but they exist.  For example, I grade every essay twice to account for maybe being annoyed that the Red Sox lost the first time I graded.  What if I’m really happy because Chris Sale struck out twelve the second time I grade?  Into the swamp we sink….

This subjectivity is present even in courses with obvious right and wrong answers.  A math teacher’s subjectivity may not be evident in grading the answer to 2+2, but what questions that teacher puts on an exam eases that test right into the murky swamp.  What happens if every student gets an A on that math teacher’s test?  What if every student fails?  The math teacher has probably thought about that, and the test questions are selected to avoid both extremes.  The teacher has subjectively created a curve wherein some expected amount of students will get A’s, some larger amount will get B’s and C’s, and some few will fail.

Thus far, I’ve only considered myself and my hypothetical math teacher.  What about the thousands of other English instructors at the thousands of other institutions?  Even if we all started with the same textbook and the same syllabus and the same assessments, (and we definitely don’t) what is the chance that my A student has the same knowledge as Professor Dumbledore’s A student?  Probably zero.  It is likely that both A students have a strong grasp of the content.  We start sinking into the swamp at the center of the curve.  Is my idea of “satisfactory,” i.e. a C, the same as Dumbledore’s?  Maybe my concept of a C is Dumbledore’s idea of a B.

So, a grade is partially indicative of subject knowledge, but it is also indicative that a student did or did not turn in an assignment by an arbitrary deadline.  It is likely that an A student has subject mastery.  However, a C grade does not conclusively indicate less subject mastery.  The grade is the product of an individual teacher’s subjective appraisal or predetermined distribution of outcomes.  It may or may not be comparable to another grade from another teacher or institution.

All this uncertainty for the certainty of one of five letters that we’ve conditioned students is the be all end all of their academic lives.




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