A Word On Grades

Mature Teacher Grading

Not too long ago, I attended a meeting where a lot of teachers were expressing frustration about assessment. A few people were saying they felt uncomfortable giving low grades to college students, especially those who had claimed to be “A” students in high school.

What?

I am not sure how a student’s high school report card should impact his or her grades in a college level course. Twenty-five years ago, teachers worried a lot less about students’ feelings. They just read the papers they received and doled out the grades. They didn’t worry about crushing self-esteem or how a low grade would impact students’ grade point averages.

Teachers need to have a solid understanding of how to assess student work. In any class, assessment can be based on writing an individual paper, preparing a group presentation, class participation, attendance, homework problem sets, exams (essay, short answer, multiple choice, true/false), and so on. Alternatively, when a student performs a task rather than taking a test, it is called performance assessment. There are a zillion different types of performance based assessment.

To me, it’s actually really, really simple:

A range = Amazing work. And let’s be clear, amazing work is very rare. It means the reader can sit back and appreciate the writing because the author really understands how to play with language. The grader should only have to pick up a pen to draw little stars in the margins. When I read an “A” paper, I sometimes gasp audibly because “A” papers are that good. Parents may not like to hear it, but in reality, amazing work is very rare. For me, an “A” range paper earns anything above 90%.
B range = Very good: A “B” means I can tell the student has some solid skill in the subject area. There may be a few grammar errors or awkwardly phrased sentences, but — in general — the paper reads smoothly. Perhaps the meaning wasn’t as conveyed as fully as it might have been. But a “B” paper still shows evidence of a real understanding of the assignment and the material, as well as very good writing and thinking skills. For me, a B paper earns a grade somewhere between 80%-89%.

See? Most people should get C's!

C range = Common. Back when I was in graduate school, we learned that C meant “Average” — and guess what? Most students are average. (Not your kids, of course. Your kids are gifted and talented.) But the reality is that students have to put in some kind of effort to move up from average. Students in “C” range often struggle generating a solid thesis. Their organization is hard to follow. Their grammar is choppy. They don’t spell-check their papers, or their confuse homonyms (words that sound the same but are spelled differently). Lots of people who are currently earning B’s should be getting C’s! There are other ways in which students reveal their average-ness. (That is not a word, but I think it should be.) Let’s face it, some folks are 100% silent participants: they just sit there taking in valuable oxygen, but they don’t really add to the dialogue. Now, that doesn’t mean the shy kid is going to get a “C,” but someone better make sure he participates aloud once in a blue moon. Because you simply cannot earn an “A” if you have never opened your mouth. It ain’t happenin’. People can earn C’s when they earn a low grade on a paper, are given an opportunity to revise, but they opt not to do so. That is, of course, a student’s prerogative.  A “C” basically means the student was average in the course or made average effort. It’s okay. Not everyone has to be stellar in every subject. To me, a “C” grade ranges between 70%-79%.
D range = Deficient. It is not impossible to get a “D” in college. A student may elect to skip an assignment or two. And it’s kinda hard to recover when you have a zero averaged in with very few other grades. (Just sayin’!) Students who earn D’s often have some major deficiencies in the subject matter. In English, they may not know how to structure an essay; how to generate a thesis; how to support their thesis with quotes; how to cite their quotes properly. They usually dislike (read: hate) the subject matter and engage in a lot of avoidance behaviors. They don’t read or take notes on the assigned material. They are not interested in meeting with the instructor outside of class. They do the exact minimum amount of work necessary for them to pass with the course with a D. Students who earn D’s are not struggling to complete their papers on Saturday nights. Reading “D” papers is like stumbling around in the woods at midnight without a flashlight. Slow going. The reader has to constantly stop, as errors abound. Usually dozens. Reading a “D” range paper is toe-curling. It takes forever, so these days I have set a time limit. I can get through any 3-4 page paper in under 10 minutes, if it is written well.  If I am still bumbling around after 10 minutes, I simply draw a line at the place I’ve stopped and write “D” at the top of the paper — along with the ole “See Me.” I just can’t kill myself spending 45 minutes over a paper that a student is probably just going to stuff in his bag and never look at again — even if given the opportunity to revise. Below average no matter how you slice it, either in effort or ability, a D paper ranges between a 65% and a 69%.

F = Failing. There are a lot of reasons why students fail a class at the college level (or any level, really). Sometimes a student doesn’t have the basic skills required to pass the course: plain and simple. Sometimes, a failing student has solid skills but is trying to make a statement to his or her parents: “I don’t want to be here, but you made me enroll anyway, so now I’ll just fail at everything and waste your money.” Given a little bit of freedom for the first time, sometimes students blow it. Instead of studying, they party. They come to class hungover. They sleep in class. They miss classes (so they can catch up on their sleep). While living away from parents for the first time allows the vast majority of students the freedom to thrive, some don’t.

Sometimes students have some serious interference going on in their lives. Some people are wrestling with sexual orientation; some get involved with drugs and alcohol; some good-girls go wild, some bad boys get worse. Some people experience horrible depression — they face that void which taunts them, tells them to give up on everything. Some students bring their demons to campus. Some have been sexually, emotionally or physically abused and don’t know where to turn. Some have eating disorders. Some cut themselves. It is very hard to focus on comma rules when you just found out you tested HIV positive. So real life gets in the way, yes.

I tell failing students that their failure in a course, in any given semester, at any given time does not mean that they could not succeed at another time. It just means that, at that moment in their lives, for whatever reason, it didn’t work.

For the record: It is just as hard to fail my class as it is to get an A. But I will fail people. And I will also award A’s when they are earned.

Grading is not personal.

Why do some teachers have to make it so hard?

33 responses to “A Word On Grades

  1. I appreciate your stance and for the most part I agree with you. But for argument sake I can see how a teacher can make that claim.

    Try grading a creative writing piece. What is the main objective of a creative writing piece? To entertain. What if it is sparkling entertainment but has simplistic vocab, improper use of paragraphing etc. Then you have a brilliantly formed piece of work, with wonderful use of vocab and a clear beggining, middle and end but is a little on the dull side.

    Creative writing, art and music for example have subjective aspects to it. Sometimes there is a fine line between A and B. Often it’s not a hard thing to seperate, but sometimes it is.

    Some of the best film critics have disclaimers in their reviews that they were in two minds about what star rating they should give a film. I have heard situations where they have reviewed the same film again weeks later because on reflection they wanted to change their rating.

    Teachers don’t get a second chance. When there is a subjective piece of writing to mark, no criteria in the world is going to make the job of marking clear cut.

    • I am offer a BIG LIKE for Michael’s response. I always felt that writing assignments should always have a multiple grading. In fact, I did have teachers going through middle/high school that would frequently use a fractional grade. For example, A/B meant the content and spirit of the assignment were met with excellent quality, but the denonminator was more related to grammar, style, vocab, punctuation, etc. — the basic rules of language and usage.

      It was actually quite helpful because — at least in my case — because I always had a reason to go back to the instructor with some solid questions or for some further suggestions beyond what was written in the margins.

      With the exception of purely fact-based operations (certain components of maths and sciences), I am of the opinion grading is not as clear as Renee makes it out to be. Sure you can ‘make’ it as clear-cut as you want, but that’s far from setting a standard that EVERYONE uses.

      Truth is, if a student *wants* a good grade, it’s up to each student to learn how a teacher grades and cater to that teacher’s standard.

      This seems to be a theme in your blog posts Renee🙂

  2. It was very unfair when I went to school. In junior high the teachers seemed to give everyone blanket C’s unless you discovered a planet or something for your science project. Same in high school PE. Unless you played varsity sports everyone got a C. We dressed out all the time. We participated. We were well behaved. We ran a bizillion laps all the time in Miami’s 500 degree F heat. Wasn’t that worth an A or B? Barely got into college with a 2.7 GPA because of that. In a future post I would like to hear your opinion about individualization in teaching which was the by-word at the end of my career. We were directed not only to individualize with student assignments according to where they were at with emphasis on remediation, but to also grade on an individual scale not the one size for all scale. For instance if Jeffrey(IQ 23) produced a paragraph that day, such was an A. But if Cynthia(IQ 4,784) produced less than 3 pages that would be a D. If we applied the same grade scale for all we would have a 70% failure rate which which would be the teacher’s fault, not the fact that they were coming to high school 3-5 years below reading level. Then it was the teacher that got put on remediation. Forget college. Curve set at 85% as a D so we would flunk out, lose student deferment, become 1A for draft and get to go visit Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam.

    • Can I promise to deal with the monster we created in individualization in another blog. It’s too big to get into here, but I agree that mid-1990s, everyone started asking for “the teacher who individualizes.” This is also when everyone started getting “tested” to see if they might be elligible for special accommodations. I promise. Another day.😉 A great question. And I’m sorry you had to run so much, but I bet it made you tough.

      • Of course. Betcha that’ll be explosive with passion and comments. I intend to remain a mere spectator in that one. Because I know exactly……The running. Today I don’t even drive as far as most people just walk around!

  3. I didn’t spot it but I think you forgot the “L” word for “lazy,” or is that no longer a reason to get a low grade?

    All this brought to mind a European History course I took at Columbia with the very distinguished (but by me unappreciated at the time) professor Fritz Stern. I got my final back (the old “blue book”), greatly relieved that I had gotten a “B” but embarrassed at his comment: “Excellent exposition, Mr. Hess. You would have gotten an “A” had you read the book.” Some 35 years later I was reading one of his seminal works -“Dreams and Delusions”- sought out his email and wrote him how much I loved his books. I received a return email: “Mr. Hess, delighted you finally read the book!”
    Wish I could do college again….not!

    • I definitely forgot “plain ole lazy,” so I’m glad you added it for me.

      So how was the book after all these years? Did your snarky old Professor make you want to write a new paper? What compelled you to try to find him after all these years? Curious. Were you seeking approval?😀

      • In my forties I became a serous Holocaust student/reader (I am a survivor, as you know). Fritz Stern is one of the preeminent scholars of the times. I felt badly that I had pretty much wasted my college years and the privilege of having so many outstanding professors at Columbia. If anything I felt myself a “Fritz Stern groupie.” I had been reading his works for several years. The man is a genius. Quite surprised he would remember me.

        As for “lazy,” you forgot it because it no longer exists in school. Now it’s “depression” or some sort of “challenge” You have to be diagnosed rather than accused.

  4. …also, I was teaching a Holocaust Studies course at St. John Fisher many years ago when I had a very nice and polite student who was so terminally stupid if you threw her against the wall she’d stick. She was on a solid “F” test and essay track. I discussed her with the department head because the young lady was unfailingly polite and respectful (big points for me), did not miss class but was simply….dumb. He smiled, blamed the high school system and suggested I might show some “Christian charity” and give her a “D.”

    I did just that. She filed a complaint for unfair grading.

    Gotta love it.

    • I had a similar situation this past semester after a student CHEATED. To be true, a D is nothing to write home about. I would have been very embarrassed to have gotten a D in a college course. But, alas, the aptitude isn’t always there.

      I’m guessing this student was not going to be any kind of history major (*she said with her fingers crossed.*)

      • She had no business being in college to begin with but that’s a whole other story that could well be the topic of your next blog.

  5. Nice explanation of grades! Maybe some teachers just aren’t confident enough in their own judgment — but they need to get the heck over that if they’re going to keep being teacher. Upholding standards requires a certain amount of ruthlessness, but that’s just how it goes, it’s part of the job. And I agree it’s not personal.

    Re: the creative writing/movie reviews, I think it’s perfectly possible to grade on technical excellence of a piece even while admitting it doesn’t float your boat. (I hate American Beauty with a passion, but I’d still give it an A!)It’s an imperfect system (what isn’t?) but I think it’s necessary to trust teachers with this task. People don’t anyway, but teachers aren’t helping when they do this stuff!

    For similar reasons it really bugs me when people insist on a ‘scientific’ numerical breakdown for grades. This may be possible in some fields, but no two papers are alike and when you get different topics, styles, genres etc. there isn’t a single rubric that’s going to explain everything. As long as you can give a logical explanation for the grade, it’s going to stand — and once again, who’s more qualified to judge the work: the kid, a doting parent, or a teacher who’s been writing and grading for ten years?

    • I agree that it is possible to grade objectively on subjective material. I do it all the time. And this is why, for example, with creative projects, I make sure they come with written explications of intention. Sometimes the concept is amazing, but it fails to transfer (etc.) and it’s helpful to know the student understood what he/she was doing.

      WroPro, we should collaborate and write about the hell that is called rubric. Glurg!

      • I’m game! I even came up with a pretty good one, but that only worked for pre-assigned essays (bound to be the same form). So, when one kid wanted to write poetry in the style of Catullus (which I welcomed)…no rubric!

  6. I like Phil’s idea of double grading!! At least you would know, “Hey, I did good in this area but need to improve in this area.” It gives the child confidence, yet something to shoot for, instead of lumping it all together.

    Also, on a side note, I’d hate when my kids would come home with an A and I’d read the paper and I myself would think this is CRAP,did they (teachers) even read this (in my head of course). I’d wonder what a disservice this teacher is doing my child by saying this writing is “A” worthy. Then the next year in the same writing style another teacher gives her a “C”, its a bit confusing? Just thinking out loud here😀

    • Mary, another excellent bloggie topic in the hopper. Inconsistency between years and teachers can be very frustrating for students — especially if those teachers use different terminology, etc.

      I have used “double grading” in the past, but I stopped. Over time I’ve learned that students who want to do well will make time to meet with me. Bottom line. I don’t need to make things extra confusing in my grade book for the two people who actually care. The cream always rises. Students who want to rise to the top with me will come and talk with me. I’m not that hard to understand. Really.

  7. Here’s a good one from my high school career: When I was a Junior, we had to write a “college style” paper, complete with thesis statement, outline, first rough draft, second rough draft, and finally a final paper.

    So with gusto, I wrote what I thought was an excellent thesis showing my position and thought(s) on the subject matter. I had mine handed back with a simple: “Not good enough” note attached. So I wrote another thesis statement. “Not good enough.” So I wrote another (admittedly with MUCH less gusto). “No.” Undeterred, I wrote another excellent thesis. “Not good enough.” This went on and on for about a month. In the mean time the outline was due (so I submitted it without an “approved” thesis). Eventually, my dad (another teacher at the school) called her to ask what she wanted in the thesis. Then HE wrote a thesis for me. “Not good enough.”

    At this point, I was very annoyed and went with my original thesis statement and wrote my paper. Of course, I pulled a “C” (no surprise there).

    The end of the year rolls around, and she says to me, “Eric, you’re a bright boy, but you did no work for me. And you still haven’t submitted and approved thesis statement.”

    I lost it. Lost it. I went off on her, telling her what a bitch she was, where she could stick her head, where she could remove her head from, etc, etc, etc. Then I commented that my dad wrote one of my statements after calling her and asking her for exactly what she wanted in the thesis statement and she still didn’t approve that. So who has the problem? I was never happier to never have her as an instructor again.

    • I guess what I’m saying is that she CLEARLY had a hard time assessing students work….

    • Dude, how much detention did you have to serve for THAT outburst?😉

      Just curious, obviously you WERE trying behind the scenes. Did you ever go and speak to that instructor to find out what she was looking for?

      I’m big on “meet with the teacher.” It’s my mantra. Getting parents from other disciplines involved in something that is really meant to be a dialogue between you and the teacher is rarely the way to go.

      Awesome story years later, though. Do you ever dream of her? Or that Junior thesis?😉

      • In my opinion, “Not good enough” is never an acceptable response from a teacher or professor. If the issue is too complicated to convey in a note, I agree with Renee – “Meet with me to discuss.” would have been a better response.

        Just saying “No” or “Not good enough” does not teach the student anything. I would have been very frustrated with that response on a paper.

  8. I actually managed to leave school (our tirade was on the last day) before she was able to put together a coherent thought and actually put me in detention.

    I met with her on numerous occasions to go over what she wanted in a thesis statement. I incorporated everything she had told me to no avail.

    I used to dream of her coming to a nasty end in some way. The really sad thing is that my best friends brother had a similar situation with her. My best friend however, (younger by a couple of years) didn’t have any problems with her. My younger brother didn’t have a problem with her either. She seemed to not like older siblings…

  9. Love it! And I love your candor and your blog. It’s fantastic to have a fellow teacher tell it like it is. I teach College level English and there is a huge difference between A and B grade level work — if you don’t get it, try another job.

    And as to the other thread of discussion taking place here — it is a teacher’s job to explain to to students not only the requirements but also how the student can improve his writing. I usually follow any formal writing assignments with a powerpoint presentation as to common mistakes made on the writing and how to correct them.

  10. Superbly written for those who have trouble grading students. I truly hate grading students but their is no other way to evaluate a student. I always enjoyed classes when I wasn’t graded on. I was more relaxed and not pressured. (I learned and listened better too! ) But that’s just me.

  11. I agree completely! I can understand the teacher riding the line on certain content-related aspects of a paper, but the difference between an A and a B should be pretty clear. If I were one of her students (or the parent of), I’d be FURIOUS about this article and of her apparent inability to be a good teacher. I think this is what happens in an economy like what we have right now– (a) people who were not meant to be teachers take teaching jobs because they got displaced or can’t find a job and figure they can teach because they know something about something, and (b) younger teachers do not seem to have a good grasp of the mechanics of writing themselves.

    • I’m starting to see a trend toward longer assignments but without opportunities for revision. Perhaps if this particular teacher offered shorter assignments with attention to grammar, she would understand the finer points of an A and a B.

    • I think you capture an important point in your last sentence. Present English major grads have little training in mechanics and the trend in schools today is not to teach mechanics of writing first., but to go ahead with the writing and correct mechanics errors as they occur. This is like doing algebra before learning the multiplication tables. In addition far too many have been exposed to race , gender and ethnic literature at the expense of omitting the classics of American and British literature and the Latin and Greek classics. This makes them ill prepared to teach high school literature curriculum esp. in the area of advanced placement. As a director of social studies interns, I found interns had little or no knowledge of American or world history because they had studied primarily the history of particular groups.

  12. If a teacher can not tell and A from a B, she should make a rubrik to help herself out. She can even provide it to the children so they know what to focus on. she can design her own standards…wait, she has to have standards!

    • Believe me, there was much less of this “hard to assess stuff” when I was young. Ask my mother to show you any of my report cards that never made it to the refrigerator.

      My husband has a report card where he got a C and the comment reads: “Bright, but slow.” I love that one. Can you imagine if a teacher wrote that on a report card now?

  13. “Not your kids though. Your kids are gifted and talented.” Hahahaha!

  14. I loved the blog. I found many of my own attitudes and habits here. Waiting to read more on English teaching and evaluating.

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