For perhaps the first time in my teaching career, I had my grades completely finished before the new year. Exams completed, comments entered, and everything ready to post when we return. I’m glad to be finished, but every semester I am reminded: I hate grading. It’s not the act of marking up translations (though that’s not particularly fun either), so much as the assigning of grades that I simply don’t enjoy. I’ve spent some time over break thinking about why that is.
As I was completing all these tasks, I was also reading the flurry of articles on the topic of grade inflation, spurred by a Harvard professor complaining that the median grade at his institution is an A. Following this, there were of course plenty of articles saying this is a bad thing, others claiming this is a good thing, and others explaining why it is a thing here to stay.
Conor Friedersdorf’s defense, while I don’t agree with all of it, does get to the crux of my distaste with grading: what should matter is whether or not a student is learning, not the grade itself. But like everything else that’s important in life, learning is hard to measure. Grades are a crude attempt to measure that, just like standardized test scores.
In my classroom, the struggle I have with grades boils down to this: students expect grades to reflect their effort, while I am trying to assign grades based on their knowledge of the material. As much as I try to tell students that the C+/B+/A- on their paper doesn’t reflect their value as a person, there is often much wailing and gnashing of teeth when the grade is lower than they expect. They cannot understand how, if they tried hard and did all the work, I could possibly withhold from them the reward of an A or A+. In my head, the grade on an assignment or report card is simply a shorthand indication of how much Latin I think they know. But when they read it, it too often feels to them like an arbitrary score that I dole out capriciously.
As a result, I find myself giving the students more opportunities to “earn” that higher grade: optional assignments, quiz retakes, “augmented pointage”, that type of thing. So I may have Betty with an A who truly knows as much Latin as could be expected at her level. Then Veronica may not be quite at that same level of mastery, but also has an A on her report card because she took advantage of some extra opportunities.
When I first started teaching, this bothered me, but every time I would contemplate becoming more strict with my grading, I held back. Why? Not just because I want to avoid conflict (though I do hate when they cry), but because I really do want them to focus on learning more than the grade. And if Veronica gets a C on a test, but then corrects her mistakes and brings her grade up to a B-, is that so bad? No, maybe she doesn’t know Latin as well as Betty, who got a B- the first time around. Then again, maybe she just had a bad day taking the test. At the end of the day, she’s learned a bit of Latin, and so we move on. What if every student who struggles on a test takes that same opportunity, and the class average ends up higher as a result? Isn’t that leading to grade inflation. Sure, but they all corrected their mistakes and (maybe) learned something from it. Doesn’t seem so bad.
I do worry about grade inflation. I do want those A grades and honor rolls to mean something, and agree with the professor who says there’s not much point in having a range of grades if only the top few are ever actually given out. But at the end of the day, I can’t control how students view grades–there are too many factors. As much as I want to deemphasize grades, the students have too many voices telling them they are all-important. In the end, I’ve decided to not stress about those grades so much. I look at my class averages, but I try to spend more time focusing on the central question: How well have they learned? Hopefully, over time, I’ll learn more ways to get my students to think the same way.
Actually, my favorite take on all this was the New York Times’ satirical “leaked grading rubric” from Harvard.