→ "Why I Threw Away My Rubrics"

Professor Jennifer Hurley writes about her struggles with rubrics, and why she's ditched them (emphasis mine):

The real reason I think we’re attracted to rubrics is because we like the simplicity and efficiency of them. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could make giving feedback into a scientific process? That would be so efficient and so less fraught with uncertainty! But why are we so afraid to admit that the evaluation of writing is subjective and depends much upon the individual reader? I think it comes back to grades. We’re frightened that if we admit that good writing is sometimes a matter of opinion, then we are no longer the authority, and we no longer can defend our grades.

I've struggled with rubrics myself, for exactly this reason–good work, especially complex work like writing or a presentation, is impossible to quantify into any manageable number of categories. Too often, I think in my head, "This is a B+ paper," and then I look to reconcile the rubric with that grade. Yes, the rubric does sometimes keep me on track while grading, making sure I look at each different area and don't forget to give credit where it's due. When the rubric isn't tied directly to the grade, it's slightly more useful, but only slightly.

→ "The Emotional Weight of Being Graded, for Better or Worse"

Yet another good post about the impact of grading, this time from the always thoughtful KQED MindShift blog. (As always, emphasis mine.)

The trouble with these extreme emotional reactions to grades is that students’ knowledge of a subject is tied to their experience of the grade, says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, associate professor of education, psychology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California. Powerful emotions attached to grades drown children’s inherent interest in any given subject.

“Whether the grade is good or bad, you’re taking the student away from focusing on intrinsic interest and tying their experience to grades,” Immordino-Yang explained. Under such circumstances, genuine interest in learning for its own sake wilts. “Grades can be an impetus to work, and can be really satisfying,” she said. “But when emotions about the grade swamp students’ emotions about a subject, that’s a problem.”

I've certainly seen this in my own classroom. Now matter how much I try to preface an assignment with comments like, "Don't worry about the grade," their emotional reaction trumps everything else. I've tried to do small things in my classroom to reduce that focus on the grade, but so long as grades are the primary source of feedback in the school, there's not much I can do.

“When Grading Harms Student Learning”

Another good post about grades and their impact in the classroom.

His take on giving a student a zero:

Zeros do not reflect student learning. They reflect compliance. Instead of zeros, we should enter incompletes, and use these moments to correct behavioral errors and mistakes. Often, one zero can mathematically destroy a student’s grade and pollute an overall metric that should reflect student learning. Here, grading is getting in the way of truly helping a student, as well as showing what that student really knows.

Precision

Our online gradebook displays grades with one decimal point. And according to the company's online forums, many teachers and college professors around the country are quite upset with this lack of precision. How can a teacher possibly rate a student's performance if they don't know if their grade is a 92.44% or a 92.45%?

For me, grading is one of the hardest parts about teaching. It's not easy to assign numerical grades to students' work, especially knowing just how many students tend to conflate that grade in the course with their value as a person. (Not that we teachers should get any sympathy from students for this–their job is hard too.) Anything we teachers can do to make it more objective removes a bit of that psychic burden.

But we have to admit that there's always a subjective quality to grading, from the creation of the assessments to the grading of them. We can try to limit the subjective portion, but my fear is that using our fancy digital gradebooks to give more precise numbers only gives the illusion of objectivity. "I'm sorry, Bertha, I know you're a great student, but you only earned 89.99% of the available points this semester, so that's just not an A."

Some teachers are fine with that philosophy, and that's OK. Of course, there has to be a cutoff between an A and a B somewhere. I just don't have the confidence to say that I didn't "cost" them a hundredth of a point somewhere over the course of the semester. So much as I try to ensure that each assessment is precisely written and then graded consistently for every student, I'm not perfect. What if I was a little hungry when I read Bertha's essay, and I marked off a few more points than I did on somebody else's essay of similar quality? Or what if a single multiple choice question on a test was unclear, with two possible correct answers?

There's nothing wrong with teachers who don't have these same doubts as I do, and are completely comfortable with highly precise grading scales. But I can't help but wonder if this has the potential to be an example of the "False Precision Fallacy":

False precision (also called overprecision, fake precision, misplaced precision and spurious accuracy) occurs when numerical data are presented in a manner that implies better precision than is actually the case; since precision is a limit to accuracy, this often leads to overconfidence in the accuracy as well.

It's entirely possible (likely even) that I'm wrong about all this, but acknowledging the inherent subjectivity of grading rather than fighting it has given me peace–I don't lose sleep when I give students the benefit of the doubt.