Making Grades

Before assigning end-of-the-year grades, I steel myself for cusp numbers—each 76.3 and 89.5 and every other figure landing between A, B, C, and the oh-so-subtle levels of the letters. It’s absurd to think my year-long assessment accurate to the tenth, yet many students—particularly the most ambitious, hard-working, and conscientious ones—care deeply about tenths. I hate grades, but I assign them because it’s a responsibility of my job.

The computer program we use to record grades and comments tracks my average score for each section. These results are “helpful information only” that, as far as I know, no one monitors. I’m not aware of my colleagues’ statistics either, but I still sometimes worry—at a school like ours, where being rigorous is de rigueur, no teacher likes being a pushover.

When I look at that figure, defensiveness kicks in. I tell myself many variables go into my average being above average: Sectioning is never equitable, particularly when the registrar groups students for an honors section in another subject. You also can’t discount the relationship between teacher and students. When the atmosphere is positive and the class active and curious, the grades will be higher. When the students come to believe they can do better—as they often do when you clarify what’s expected and encourage them—their improvement seems inevitable.

But I know the trouble. A class average reflects a teacher’s grading policies, and mine are terrible. I give too many second chances. I drop the lowest score for every five quizzes and give a lot of quizzes. After tests, I often let students earn back three or four points by correcting the questions they missed, or by finding the spot in the reading where answers appeared, or by responding to an essay choice they passed over and practicing their writing. Students can also rewrite out-of-class essays. To encourage them to revise, I grant the grade they ultimately earn. An “A” can wipe out a “C.”

Some colleagues might say I just want to be liked. It’s true I don’t enjoy adversarial relationships, but I’m not naïve. H. L. Mencken said no teacher should expect to be seen as more than a benevolent jailer. One teaching reality is that many students appreciate you only as much as their last grade. In my experience, anything a teacher does exclusively to be nice, backfires. What seems nice often isn’t, and it’s best to be consistent instead. I try to be consistently challenging and create many chances for students to be challenged.

My standards are my standards (and I think they’re high) but students give what they can to reach them. A few have the mental wherewithal, habits, and training to meet my standards easily. The others add effort, particular attention to the skills I’m trying to teach, desire to improve, and intangibles like curiosity, teamwork, organization. The more opportunities I give—and the more varied opportunities I give—the more they do. Many find ways to apply their particular strengths in surprising and resourceful ways.

I could easily bring my grades down by eliminating forgiving policies. I could prevent students from learning from mistakes. I could reduce the number of assessments I offer and render every little misstep more consequential. If I remove chances to work through nagging issues in their writing, I can keep progress and improved scores at bay. Offering less feedback on the quality of their work might actually cause their work to decline.

In the nineteenth century, education was a sorting process, a way of separating scholars from workers, but I like to think we’re more enlightened now. If you don’t learn to ride a bicycle today, we don’t say, “Sorry, you aren’t a bicycle rider.” We offer another chance. At the end of each school year, I’m really saying, “This is where you are now, this year, in this class, with this teacher” and I’d love to be able to do so honestly, without a nagging voice telling me I’m being too generous every time I round a grade up.


Filed under Anxiety, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Identity, Laments, Numbers, Opinion, Teaching, Thoughts, Work, Worry

2 responses to “Making Grades

  1. I am not an educator but the issues you address are significant ones. I like where you take us in this discussion.

    Thank you. I could probably have stopped at “I don’t like to give grades,” but the subject always seems to get under my skin. Some need to explain myself always overtakes me. It’s probably rationalization, but I like to think it’s something more than that. –D

  2. If the grades you give are supposed to be measuring learning (and what on earth else should they be measuring?), then your grades are far more accurate than those of teachers who give grades based on how students completed a limited number of assignments. And if the point of going to school is supposed to be learning (and what on earth else would it be?), then your students are probably learning way more than the students of teachers who don’t recognize more and improved work as a factor worth taking into account in their grading.

    It’s when I read stuff like this that I am so, so glad my son has been out of the formal school system most of his life and hasn’t received grades. There are a lot of wise, knowledgeable people in his life who have shared expertise with him and helped him grow immeasurably, and I am incredibly grateful to those people. But I am also grateful that none of them ever slapped a letter or a number on their interactions with him and said with finality that that represented what he knew, and possibly what he would always know, about whatever knowledge or skills they had to share. Instead they’ve shown them through their example that learning continues through life, that we are all learners, that there are always more chances to improve, always more things to know, always a bigger person to grow into being. It sounds like that’s the kind of message you’re trying to send your students too.

    I’m really sorry that you and most teachers have to give grades. I know a lot of you don’t want to. And I don’t know, maybe in the context of kids being in school at all, where many (most?) of them don’t want to be, assigning grades is the only way to make sure that their being there is not a complete waste of their time instead of mostly a waste of their time. I wish more kids had other options.

    At one point, I thought about cutting out the middle man and homeschooling my children. They might have received a better sense of learning without being paid and punished by grades. In some spheres maybe grades are necessary, but I’m idealist enough to believe teachers would have a better shot at inspiring intrinsic curiosity without them. If the pupil isn’t willing, no learning will occur… with or without grades.

    That said, sometimes when I say I’d rather not give grades, my students counter that they wouldn’t do anything if we took them away. “If I didn’t have grades, I would just sleep-in everyday. Why would anyone come to school if they didn’t have to?” some say. How sad.

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. –David

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