frustrated.jpgIt’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.



Filed under concerns, General Griping, Learning, self-analysis, Teaching

21 responses to “Grades

  1. Anonymous

    Wow, that’s a tough one, Mrs. C. I can see where both of you are coming from, but, not knowing all the details, I’m almost tempted to side with your student a little.

    I don’t know that I could adequately discuss this in “blog form,” but I’d love to have a face-to-face, perhaps including Bowyer in the mix? I’m off tomorrow and Sunday if you want to get together.

  2. Mrs. Chili,

    I am an avid reader of your blog and decided to ‘de-lurk’ and respond.

    As a teacher, I thoroughly agree with your thinking on grading. My only comment to Carol would have been: “Derrick’s grade is none of your business!”

    Derrick made gains in his learning and isn’t that what is supposed to happen in the classroom?


  3. That is a tough situation. And also part of the reason I despise traditional grading. Bah!

    Hope you had a restful nap. Naps are good.

  4. This is something that’s really occupying my thinking today – and likely will be for a while.

    Thanks, Angel, for chiming in! I really WISHED I’d shut down the Derick discussion as soon as it came out of Carol’s mouth, but I felt that since I’d been engaging her in her conversation to that point, I should see it through to the end. Consider THAT a lesson learned.

    (just so you all know, Falcon posted as “Anonymous” up there…) Falcon, I’d be interested in hearing why you’d be inclined to side with the students. Toss a bit of it here, just so we can all see (and so I don’t have to worry about misrepresenting you later). If I didn’t want to hear everyone’s views, I would have just kept this to myself….

    Sadly, Allison, the nap was not meant to be. I’ve got too much on my mind (and too much to do) to take a nap on a weekday. Saturday, though? I’m SCHEDULING some middle-of-the-day downtime!

  5. bowyer

    Sunday works for me Anonymous.

    Let us get down to brass tacks.

    While your assessment is, by necessity, somewhat subjective it shouldn’t be based on progress but rather on end result.

    What the grade really comes down to who is competent by the standards of the course. In other words, what should a student be able to do when the course is complete? It shouldn’t really matter that student X went from being an imbecile to average. The fact is, in the end, the student is just average with respect to the course objectives and should receive the representative average grade.

    Notice I said that X receives an average grade based on the course objectives not a grade based on the accomplishments of others. Carol misses the point. It is not about being better than her classmates (even if her work is significantly better). In this case her perceived “excellence” is simply like being the “valedictorian of summer school”. In her eyes she doesn’t have to do well, she just has to outperform everyone else. This is a dangerous precedent to set. It means, when it gets out, that if you have Mrs. Chili, tank the first few assignments; set the bar low. When you show improvement she will give you a good grade.

    Even if her performance is light-years ahead of her classmates but still barely above average with respect to your (and the school’s) expectations then she deserves no more than a C+.

    If you had explained to her that she is graded simply on the merit of her work with respect to the standards then she should be ok with that, but you have opened the floodgates by allowing your assessment of others become part of the argument. What is even harder to overcome is that you have now indicated to her that the grade is partially based on perceived improvement and what is more subjective than that?

    Rubrics can be excellent tools to make very subjective matter more objective. I have found making a useful and streamlined rubric is more difficult than I had imagined. I have also found they work significantly better if the students are taught to use them to rate each other as well. If we do get together Sunday I have done some work on creating highly functional rubrics in the past 3 months and I could show you some of the ideas I have. These may make it easier for you to defend grades in the future and hopefully prevent you from having to defend them as often.

  6. i have to say i agree that there have to be standards for the course, and i don’t believe grading on improvement is useful or fair. often the effort required to improve from level 1 to level 2 is vastly less than the effort required to move from level 4 to level 5, and the support required to succeed is vice versa. i do, however, think it’s important to value improvement, but that should be through constant emphasis through the year, and ideally, students who are excelling in your class will buy into that and work to improve regardless of its impact on their grades.

    as for students who come in at the start of the year far below standards, i believe what matters is getting them to a basic level of understanding with respect to the standards. this means deciding what every student should leave your class knowing, understanding, and/or being able to do. to know, understand, and be able to do those things at a basic level would be a passing grade; to be proficient at these things would be a higher grade; and to be advanced would be higher yet.

    i’m curious – do you differentiate in your classroom?

  7. bowyer

    I agree with Lara whole heartedly – improvement should be valued and celebrated, but in the end the grade must reflect each student’s ultimate capabilities.

    At this level and at the high school level grades are still used by institutions of higher education and employers to compare one student to the next (at least in a preliminary look at a large batch of applicants). In Mrs Chili’s example there is little difference between the B+ (89) Derick received and the A (as low as a 93 in many scales) Carol received. Yet Mrs. Chili indicates that Carol is far better at these skills than Derick. I can see why Carol views this as unfair.

    Where college applications are concerned, Universities quickly make a book on different schools and how the students from those schools perform i.e., B students from school X earn As when they get here, while A students from school Y generally earn Cs (if we accept them).

    When the question, “What are we doing with these grades after graduation?”, is taken into consideration Carol has a point. Comparatively, the grades are similar, when in reality the current ability of the individual is not.

    Differentiating in the classroom is a wonderful idea that allows each student to achieve at his/her own pace, but in a world where classes are scheduled and time is limited it does not always allow achievement to the level hoped for. (Don’t forget No Child Moving Forward, which forces all students to be in the same place at the same time.)

    While it is recognized that a lesser levels of achievement are due to individual differences, (the student is not ready to make a certain accomplishment yet, or is possibly incapable of meeting those standards) the reality should be that whatever the student can accomplish at the end of the course is what the final grade should be based on. This does not meet the U.S. “make everyone feel good about themselves” ideology and will piss many people off, but it is how I feel about honesty in education.

  8. I guess I gave the wrong impression about Derick. The presentation he gave really DID warrant an 89 – he hit all the requirements in the rubrick in demonstrable, obvious ways, put together a credible argument, and delivered the speech with poise and confidence. The points he lost were generally those related to factual support and evidence of drafting – he didn’t turn in any bibliography or drafts, and didn’t internally cite, within his speech, anything of substance to back up the claims he was making. Had he done those things, his grade would have been higher.

    I mentioned in my post that there are standards that the students have to meet in the course, and that is entirely true. Each of the classes I’ve taught thus far – composition, public speaking, and grammar – have clearly stated objectives, set by TCC, that the students are supposed to be able to demonstrate by the end of the course. I need to write them, word for word from the catalogue, on the syllabus for each class. I teach my classes with the idea, in the back of my mind, that the Dean could stop one of my students in the hall at any moment and ask that they demonstrate one of those standards. Right now – even with the 86 (it was an 86, not an 89, by the way – I was misremembering the numbers), Derick is earning a C+. Carol has a solid A. I can say with a high degree of confidence that if the Dean were to ask for an on-the-spot demonstration of one of the standards on the syllabus, she would get the quality of work that is reflected in the grades I’ve posted. I’m not being unfair here.

    This has been an incredible learning experience for me so far- and is continuing to be so. While I’m standing by my belief that it’s not right to hold every student to the same standard – or to compare one student’s performance to another’s when figuring grades – I have learned that it’s probably best to not discuss my grading practices with students. I’m still working my way around assessment and evaluation, and my discussions with my students – and with you all – have given me new ideas to try next term (Carol made a good point about what I did or did not require on the actual due date for the final presentations, and you’re giving me food for thought about the value (or, at least, the graded value) of measurable improvement).

    It’s a PRACTICE, and I’m still practicing….

  9. I don’t know that it’s a bad idea to discuss grading practices with a student (particularly if, for example, you gave them a rubric ahead of time – then you could just go over that with them and explain which objectives they met and which they didn’t, and why) but I do agree that it’s not a good idea to disucss how you graded student B when you’re talking to student A.

    I have found rubrics to be especially helpful when I’m not grading on every little thing; if the criteria I set for the assignment are A, B, C, D and E and one student does A, B and C and another does A, B, C, D, Q and X, there won’t be an ENORMOUS difference between their grades. However, I would do something “extra” for the student who did well at things I wasn’t counting: catch her as she left class to express how pleased I was with her mastery of Q and X, or write her a little note or something. Personal encouragement sometimes matters more than we might think.

  10. sphyrnatude

    I have to chime in on this one. When I teach and grade, I am defintiely NOT measuring the student’s “progress”. I make it very clear in my courses that a certain level of expertise/knowledge/whatever you want to call it is assumed for every student that is taking the class. If a student does not have that level of expertise, either drop the course, or plan on getting it on your own (for the students that decide to stick it out, I am always willing to assist). When I teach, I have a set of goals that I expect to reach by the end of the semester. The students are graded in their success in meeting those goals. I don’t curve, I don’t make allowances for students that don’t have the base skills.
    At the start of the semester, the students are given an outline that inlcudes the readings, lecture schedule, and what their deliverables are. They are graded solely on their ability to produce the deliverables.
    While I understand the desire to encourage students who are “behind” to perform and catch up, that is the job of either a remedial class (which I rarely teach), or course prerequisites. The problems I have with allowing for “student growth” “progress” or whatever buzzword you choose to use is that it makes your grades meaningless. When I sit on an admissions committee and have to evaluate a student based solely on their grades and (if I’m lucky) a short essay, I have to be able to assume that a good grade means mastery of the material in the class. If I look at a student that got an “A” in algebra, I should be confident that the student really does know algebra. If the “A” might mean that the student came into the algebra class unable to count, but finished it knowing how to add, subtract and multiply, I guess its great that the student learned that, and (s)he certainly made progress, but still doesn’t know algebra….

    I know tis comes across as really hard-assed (which I am about grading), but grades are becoming more and more meaningless. A grade should reflect a students mastery of the material taught in the class. If it doesn’t how are other educators supposed to be able to know what the student knows?

  11. Let me reiterate that, in this particular instance, we’re talking about a single performance – the final persuasive speech – and not the sum total of the students’ work. Derick has a C+ for the class, but he really did nail that final speech. Sphyrnatude, if you were on an admissions committee, you’d be able to tell the difference between Derrick and Carol, but if you were sitting in my class the other day, you’d have seen that, in that particular moment, they were doing work of very similar quality.

  12. Suzanne

    Thanks for the very interesting discussion about grades. As you were all discussing the value of a letter grade in the college admissions process, it raised a question in my mind about the relative value of any letter grade.

    For example, Mrs. Chili is teaching English 101. Another instructor at another institution (or even the same one) is teaching the same class, using the same essential materials. But each instructor is going to grade her/his students differently. So now how does a college admissions counselor value the grades from each respective instructor? That is to say, is an “A” from Mrs. Chili equivalent to an “A” from the other instructor? How would you know?

    Please do not read into this that I support in any way the rigid standardization of grading rubrics across institutions. In fact, I support the elimination of letter grades, or at minimum, the addition of narrative grading systems that truly give information about a student’s performance.

    I worked for many years in Human Resources, and if you would like a real-world analogy, try the performance review. Never have I seen one that gives an employee a single letter grade. It would have no value.

    I do agree that you need to establish a consistent grading system, that looks at the individual student and how her/his performance relates to the standards you have set for the class.

  13. Suzanne, I’m SO glad you brought this up. As Mr. Chili and I were walking home from walking the girls to school this morning, we were talking about my grading issues and HIS performance review issues. He has a very interesting argument about the value of the numeric scale used in his performance review, and how NO ONE will ever rate someone as a 1 or a 10, so all the evaluations fall in the middle. I’m not sure I can adequately express his points here, but I can tell you I’m REALLY looking forward to the conversation that will happen this weekend with Bowyer and Falcon.

    I should also mention, because I didn’t in the post, that, in addition to the rubric, I also wrote up an evaluation for each student – the narrative grade of which you spoke. As a student, I found those kinds of feedback to be the most useful in my own learning; knowing the specific places that my professors thought I could make improvements gave me something to focus my effort on and to be mindful of the next time I attempted the skill that was being evaluated. As an English teacher (and as an English STUDENT who received a lot of that kind of feedback), I find that it is my MOST fair and effective grading tool, even if, for the sake of the college, I do have to attach a number or letter grade to it. With the write-ups, at least the students know how I saw the work they did, and can make changes and adjustments based on real feedback rather than an abstract, non-specific letter grade.

  14. The “meaningless” of letter grades is something that has been bothering me for quite a while now. In fact, I’ve been lobbying for change, but I do not have high hopes. We aren’t even allowed to give + / – grades. So when I have a student with an 89 and another with an 80, they both get a B. The first student is much closer to mastering the skill of computer programming; the second is in danger of slipping out.

    I wish transcripts could record each student’s average as well as the overall class average (or even a histogram) for the term. That is a more accurate comparison, I think.

  15. Glad your semester is drawing to a close.

    I’ll have that recipe for you as soon as I can torture it out of Girl.

  16. Hmm, this is very interesting to me. It’s a somewhat different situation than I will find myself in, as I will be teaching Primary school and the implications of grading are much different at that level, but the whole question of assessment is still tricky. Here (in Spain, and in theory, as I am talking about what I am learning in my Ed classes, having had no experience yet in actual schools), what you have to do when planning your syllabus for the year is start off with the State-mandated minimums. These are what everyone at that level must be capable of doing at the end of the year, no matter what school they go to. (Adaptations can be made for special needs.)

    Then you can enrich the mandated minimums, taking into account the realities of your particular students and what they are capable of/interested in. However, it is perfectly possible to give, say, different exams or assignments to different students, as long as everyone meets the mandated minimums. I have yet to see how it all works out “in real life,” and I’m sure it is still always a tricky issue (I know I would have been pissed as a young student if I were getting similar grades as my lower-performing classmates), so it’s interesting to see what other people think.

  17. sphyrnatude

    While I do agree that letter grades are not the ideal way of recording astudents performance, I have yet to see a better method. While individual narratives may make it easier (and probably more acurate) to comunicate a students strengths and weaknesses, imagine diggin through 20 or 30 thousand applications. Having letter grades makes it very simple to dispose of the “no-chance” candidates.
    I agree that there is a lot of variability in what an “A” means both between teachers and from school to school, but in general, an “A” should mean the student is in the top 5-10% of the class.

    Personally, I’m all for skill based assesment. Master this set of skills, and you get an “A”. Master this portion of them, and get a lower grade. Fail to master enough of them, and get an “F”. Of course, this opens the whole issue of national standards…..

  18. Tracy W

    I’m a bit lost. Was Derrick’s speech nearly as good as hers – even if the rest of his work for the year wasn’t? Or was it that Derrick’s speech wasn’t as good as hers by absolute standards but by relative standards it was nearly as good?

  19. No, Tracy, Derick’s speech was as good as Carol’s by absolute standards. I was able to check off boxes in the rubric of standards that he demonstrated. Carol didn’t feel, given Derick’s performance in the class to that point, that his speech was NEARLY as good as hers. While he did ramble a bit, and his point wasn’t plainly obvious (he got points off for lacking a purpose statement), he demonstrated a fair bit of competency in the skills I was looking for in this speech. I should have just shut Carol down as soon as her argument shifted from what SHE did to how she felt she did in relation to others in the class…

  20. Tracy W

    So in this case you were marking by the same standards? I’m now not quite sure why you brought in marking by different standards.

    I think if a teacher is going to mark by improvement, it’s valuable to have a way for students who are good at the start of the year to be able to show dramatic improvement too. Otherwise kids get an incentive for gaming by intentionally doing very badly at the start, then showing a dramatic improvement. Probably difficult to do within the limits of your school’s marking scheme though.

  21. Betsi

    Mrs. Chili,

    I came across this blog entry while searching for pictures of frustrated kids for a company website I am creating. My boss loves the picture, but I cannot find it anywhere else. If you remember where you got it from could you please pass it along to me?

    Thank you very much,

    Betsi Liston

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