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Monday, May 22, 2017

It's not about the grade, dammit

If I could design my own position, in addition to having fewer students and lots more time, here's what I'd like: I'd like to never, ever have to assign a grade of any kind. I want to evaluate, give feedback, indicate progress--but not give grades. Students see those grades as the sole measure of their success in a semester, when they're the least important part. I say all the time, a student who started the semester earning A's and who ended the semester earning A's probably hasn't learned anywhere near as much as a student who started out earning F's and ending up with a D+.

But I completely understand why students can't see it that way. All they see is that grade--and it does matter, because GPA has a lot to do with where they can go next. And all their lives they've been told they are the grade: You are a B student; you are an A student, whatever. Getting a grade that doesn't conform to that sense of who they are is a shock--even if it's the pleasant shock of getting a higher grade than they anticipate. Getting a lower grade? That's not only a shock, it's a wound: the student has just been told he or she is not as good a human being as he or she has always believed.

I want to drum into their heads: the grade isn't who you are--and the grade certainly isn't a measure of your potential success. But I can't make them feel that reality as much as they feel the weight of that letter. It drives me crazy--and sometimes it breaks my heart. But as long as I have to give grades, I will give grades that I believe accurately reflect the work the student has done in this particular situation. Not who the student is, not what the student may be capable of in a different situation, just what I saw from the work across the 30 classes in which the student was in my classroom. And frequently, I'm the first person in that student's life to say, "This work is about halfway to where it ought to be at this stage in your education," or even "This work is significantly lacking in a lot of what it should contain at this stage in your education." And they're devastated, as if I've said, "You are a worthless human being."

Remember the student who wrote to me, discouraged and disheartened about her grade? I sent her an email--which I thought would be comforting--telling her that I'd re-evaluate her grade when I get to the office tomorrow. I just got another email from her, still wailing about how she is so discouraged, she never wants to take another English class, and I shouldn't bother looking at the grades again because they'll just say the same thing... Although of course there is a level of manipulation in her wailing to me about all this--I'm sure it's not conscious manipulation, but if she weren't hoping for something to change, she wouldn't be wailing to me--I don't think she's wailing so much because she wants me to change the grace but because she wants some comfort.

I just wrote her a long reply, and I hope she takes the time to actually read it. (It's long enough that she may not.) I set out five basic points:

1. The grade is not the measure of success. What she learned is the measure of success.

2. How she did in my class says nothing about how she will do in future English classes--not only because she learned what she did in mine but also because other teachers will evaluate her work differently, and her grades will reflect that difference.

3. Teachers are in a bind at the end of semester and tend to set aside the stuff we know about people's personal lives and just focus on the numbers--but now that I have time to consider, there is more to her grade than just the numbers, and I want to think about that.

4. I'm not just going to recalculate the scores she got. I'm going to reread her final essay, bearing in mind what she's going through, which includes her mother dying.

5. She can decide how to respond to the grade she gets from me: it will only hold her back and stifle her success if she lets it.

I could say a lot more about all of those points--especially the third one, because although we do have a clear sense of what makes sense as a grade for any essay, the holistic grading process allows some latitude for discounting certain kinds of problems and putting more emphasis on certain kinds of successes.

But the whole thing is distressing to me, and it's what set off that rant about grading. Being me, of course I think, "Maybe I need to write up something about that and give it to students at the start of the semester," but honestly, I think it would be more beneficial to come up with a clear list of specific benchmarks: not the rather confusing rubrics I've been using but something more clear to students, maybe with a scale from "serious problem" to "excellent" instead of the dopey "not meeting, approaching, meeting, exceeding" ratings of the SUNY delineations.

In fact, I think that's what I'll work on today. It will feel like work without actually requiring me to deal with course-specific assignments or materials. Hmmmm. We'll see how this goes.

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