It’s been a long week, Kids. Mrs. Chili is exhausted.
I’ve been approached – three separate times – by students complaining about the grades they received for their final speeches. Now, before I begin my thinking about this here, I should probably let you know that none of these students scored below a 90%. This is part of why I’m so tired.
As an English teacher, one of the things I consistently struggle with is fairness in grading because, really? – most of the grades I give are, by necessity, pretty subjective. Unless the students are answering true/false questions or picking the noun out of a sentence, there really aren’t a whole lot of ‘rights’ or ‘wrongs’ to the work that I ask students to do. If a kid can eloquently and effectively express him or herself to me, if they can tease out important points and discuss them with some authority, if they can draw out fruitful and meaningful comparisons between the work that we’re doing and something else, if they can at least sound like they know what they’re talking about, I can offer them a “good” grade in exchange for that work. If they don’t do those things so well, their grades reflect that.
One of the things that I am grateful for is that my position at TCC allows me some flexibility in how I am able to assess student performance. If I have a kid who comes into my class at the beginning of the semester with barely two neurons firing at once, but who can demonstrate real effort and improvement when the term is over, I can pass him. I don’t have to hold everyone to the same standard and, while this may be tricky and will very likely open me up to a lot of potential lawsuits in the future, I love that success or failure in my classes ISN’T determined by a standardized test at the end of the semester. Sure, there’s content in my class that everyone should come out the other end knowing. I’ve said it before, though; the skills that are really important to me as a professor are the skills that can’t easily be measured. I want my kids to end my classes having had practice in analytical skills, in critical thinking, and in communication. It’s tough to test that in any meaningful way, and I rely on my familiarity with my students and my skills in observation to tell me how well individuals do in those areas from beginning to end.
While most of the grading I do is subjective, to the extent that I can, I try to employ rubrics and other assessment tools in an attempt to make my grading as representative of the students’ work as possible. I generally hand those rubrics out to students so they know, before they begin to demonstrate the work in question, what kinds of standards I’ll be looking for when I sit down to evaluate their performance. What I like about using rubrics is that they take a little bit of pressure off of me. A student generally can’t come to me complaining that I graded them badly because I don’t like them or didn’t like the topic they chose to write or speak about. I can point to a skill – at a box on the rubric – and ask them if they thought that their performance is fairly represented by the number in that box. If they say “no,” I can ask them to show me, in the work that they did, where they felt they deserved more credit than they received. More often than not, they’re not able to come up with that evidence, and the grades stand.
That doesn’t mean that I’m not willing to revisit my initial assessment of a student’s performance (or, in the case of written assignments, that I’m not willing to let students revise the work – as many times as they need to within a specified time frame – until they receive a grade that satisfies them). The ladies who came to me over the course of this week all had the same complaint: they believed that I graded them too harshly on the “eye contact and body language” standard, and I was willing, in every case, to adjust the grades up. Though none of them came out of the discussions with a 10 – I generally adjusted from a 6 to an 8 – they all made compelling arguments about why they felt that they’d done a better job with that skill than I’d given them credit for, and I agreed.
Here’s where my thinking gets a little cloudy, though, and where I’m still trying to work out some of the feedback that I received from these students over the last few days. Each and every one of them made the complaint that their work was SO far above the level demonstrated by their peers, that they didn’t feel that the grades those other students received were fair to them.
Let me put that another way: Carol felt she gave a top-notch speech. Later on, Derick got up and “rambled on about something or other” – she wasn’t even sure what the boy was talking about – and she’s pissed off that she got a 94, but Derick got an 89.
I tried to explain to her (though, now that I think about it, I shouldn’t even have entertained this line of argument, but what’s done is done) that she came into the class as an A student, but Derick came in barely able to string three sentences together. The grade that Derick received was reflective of the really substantial improvements that he’s made over the course of the class and, more to the point, Derick hit the high points on the rubric. He demonstrated the skills that I was looking for, and that demonstration earned him an 89. If she is already earning A grades for her work, I really have little room to show improvement, and the one or two points that I take off here and there are meant to get her to really start thinking about places where she can improve. She didn’t see it that way. She actually told me she was “offended” by the grade she received and, more to the point, was “pissed off” that others, who she clearly thinks don’t deserve them, are getting the grades they’re getting. Somehow, in her mind, the fact that I “didn’t fail Derick’s ass” cheapened the A she received for her speech.
I’m blown away by this.
I despise standardized assessment. While I hold everyone to the same basic standards (deadlines, classroom behavior, that sort of thing), I don’t expect everyone to perform at the same level. It’s not right for me to assess Derick’s performance based on Carol’s standards – and neither would it be right for me to grade Carol based on the standards I set for Derick. In the first case, Derick wouldn’t stand a chance; he’s not as articulate or well-read, and he doesn’t have the self-confidence or poise that Carol has (neither does he have the temper, but that’s beside the point for the moment); this kid would fail spectacularly despite his very best efforts. In the latter case, Carol would be able to sit back and do almost NO work; the criteria for excellence would be so far beneath her that she wouldn’t learn anything. Everyone has to demonstrate certain skills when they leave my class, and it’s those skills that earn them the grades that they receive.
In the end – though I know I’m not done thinking about this – I have to say that, while I appreciate the girls’ arguments (and they did offer me some things to think about when I teach this class again in the summer), I really have to stand behind my grading practices. I’m not artificially inflating grades for students who don’t deserve to pass, and neither am I docking points from students who do excellent work. Carol’s earning an A in the class. While Derick may have (for him, at least) nailed the speech, his overall grade is still a C+. The fact that I’m willing to even entertain conversations like the ones I’ve had this week demonstrates my open-mindedness and interest in making my own practice better, even if the end result isn’t what the complainants had in mind when they sat down with me.
If you’ll pardon me now, though, I’m going to go have a nap.