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.