Sunday, October 16, 2011

How Grading Is Like Horseshoes and Hand Grenades

Here’s the short version of how to keep grading from being a disproportionate pain for you, your students and their parents: Have clearly articulated standards, help your students meet those standards, provide enough feedback to explain or justify your grade, be flexible enough to admit when you’ve made a mistake and do all you can to relieve anxiety about grades.

It is unfair, dishonest and misleading to give C- work a B or vice versa. The grade is a flimsy shorthand effort to tell the student where she stands, how near or far she is from mastering the course content. Your comments, written or otherwise, about the grade tell her what she needs to do to achieve that mastery, and they tell you what you need to do to help.

A higher grade than she deserves will boost her self-esteem, make her mom happy and make both of them leave you alone so you can grade the rest of your essays, but now the whole process has become a waste of time, as big a lie as our cynical students already believe it to be. A lower grade than she deserves, on the other hand, can be pretty devastating, especially if she is actually working hard in your class.

So if you are going to be your department’s new Ms. or Mr. Hardass, you must provide the stepladder to help students reach your lofty standards. Just telling them to work harder is no more effective than a basketball coach telling his players to play harder while they’re receiving a 78-21 shellacking. You must tell them specifically the areas in which they need to improve. If you’re teaching an honors or AP class, you’ll almost certainly need to tell mom, too, because she or her beloved spouse will be in touch. How much time, during that hectic first year, do you want to spend in parent conferences?

If you are planning on being Ms. or Mr. Easy-A, well, don’t. Some of your students will be driven, highly motivated workaholics in training, and they will have dang well earned that A. They won’t appreciate the goofball sitting next to them getting the same grade for that junk he scrawled on the way to class. To make matters even worse, on rare occasions the goofball will put his heart into an assignment, for once just completely investing himself in it – maybe because you’ve finally assigned something that interests him – and then be so excited to learn that at long last he has earned an A … only to find that pretty much everyone else did, too.

Clearly, you have to get this grading thing somewhat right, but you can’t try to fine tune it too much. As a new teacher, I spent far too much time agonizing over the most accurate grade for an essay. I would actually be grinding my teeth over the distinction between, say, a C and C+. I’d refer back to the rubric, if I had one, compare the essay to others I’d given Cs or C+s to, maybe even ask some of my fellow equally clueless colleagues.

This turns out to be a huge waste of time. You have to acknowledge that evaluating writing is an inexact science; that their other grades in your class will correct the inconsistency in this one; that their future happiness turns out not to be directly related to the grade they received on a particular essay; that if they’re unhappy with the grade, they may be moved to come talk to you about it and therefore learn much more than they would’ve from your comments alone.

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