Monday, February 07, 2005


Grades are the reason students do schoolwork. Without grades, what would be the point? Education for its own sake? :-)

Despite the sarcastic tone, I'm very sympathetic to students who want to get good grades; I was one of them. Grades were, and for many students are, an extrinsic motivation to do one's best.

But that's not necessarily what they're for.

Grades are supposed to be a snapshot in time of a student's progress to date. They're supposed to combine mastery of material (tests), preparation (quizzes), and work expended (assignments and/or projects) into a neat little package. Personally, I weight academic performance and mastery of material rather heavily (50% of a grade comes from tests, another 30% from quizzes). My objective is to teach math and assess student learning in math and my grading policy matches that objective.

The grade I assign (or "calculate", but never "give") does not reflect a student's value as a person, whether or not I like that student, or how hard I think that student might have worked in or out of class. It is an objective assessment of performance. The only subjectivity in my grading is in determining how much, if any, partial credit to grant for wrong answers.

In an effort to be impartial, I'm relatively inflexible in grading. I use a computerized spreadsheet to calculate grades, rounded to the nearest tenth of a percentage point. Cutoff scores for each letter grade are posted. Students receive their work back weekly, and current grades (and the data supporting them) are posted by student ID number, not name, weekly. Students thus have plenty of opportunities to identify and correct any bookkeeping errors on my part or to argue for additional points after a test or quiz. The inflexibility comes in not changing letter grades.

"I have a 79.8%. Mr. So-and-so rounds that up to an 80%. Why do I get a C+ in your class?" Questions like this occur every grading period. If I rounded to the nearest percentage point like Mr. So-and-so, I'd have people with 89.4% complaining that they're only a tenth of a percentage point away from an A-. A line must be drawn somewhere if my grading is to have any integrity at all, and to me, 79.9% is a C+ and 80% is a B-. Arbitrary, perhaps, but not capricious. Nor is it negotiable. I won't change a grade because I like the student, or because a parent calls, or because the grade I assign will keep the student out of Harvard or Stanford or even Sac State. Students are well aware of my standards. It's up to them to reach those standards, not up to me to lower them.

Grade inflation? I don't think so. Not on my watch.


Stephanie said...

I guess it all depends on what you want your grades to mean. I think most people assume it's actual achievement -- a measure of the mastery of the subject being taught.

Darren said...

Stephanie commented on a "teaser" post I wrote, one which I hoped would encourage my few but valuable readers to come back and read the posting I just made about grades.

Stephanie, I appreciate your comment. It seems that we might agree on this issue.

Stephanie said...

In high school, one of my math teachers did have a little flexibility in the exact percentages required for each letter grade. She looked at the performance of the class, and looked for natural gaps in where the students fell on the scale. So if there were several students who *just barely* missed a grade, but a decent gap below them, she'd give them the higher grade. (I don't think she ever used this to lower grades.) Seems reasonable.

Also, does your school give separate grades for effort? My high school did -- E for excellent, S for satisfactory, and U for unsatisfactory. Although I graduated with a 3.9 (no A+ GPA bonus available at my school), I doubt I deserved more than an S in just about any of my classes, and yet I received almost all Es. I did my homework on time, and did well in general, but I'm sure there were kids working much harder than I did for similar grades. Then again, how would my teacher know how much time I spent studying (or not). In any case, if you want to grade a student on how hard they are working, an "effort" grade is the way to go. But I don't think anyone ever stays up worrying about whether they're going to get an S or an E on their report card. They don't matter much to college admissions officers.

Mr DirtBagger said...

Just Blog Surfin'. I appreciate your integrity and agree with some of your viewpoints, but I gotta be honest. You strike me and a typical academic hard ass. 79.8% and you won't round up to a B? Jesus H. Lighten up, you of all people know they are kids for Christ's sake. It's hard enough as it is.

OK, on the flip side, I'll be the first one to admit that grades don't count for shit in the real world. I worked with fuckload of ivy league, straight A dumbshits all the time. Poor bastards went through life thinking they are so damned smart, but don't know which end of a car to put the fuel in. I doubt each and every one was subjected to grade inflation.

Cool. I'm done. Keep writing.

Darren said...

Stephanie: no, I don't give grades for effort. With very few exceptions I have no idea how much effort a student puts into learning. Like you, I didn't put in near as much effort as some of my peers did but still got great grades. Grading on effort would be such a subjective grade; I'd rather stick to what's objectively measurable.

MrDirtBagger: on what grounds should I give a B- to a student who scores 79.9%? To be a nice guy? That's not the purpose of a grade. Why is it incumbent on me to "give" a better grade than that which the student earned? Why is your cutoff between a C+/B- a more reasonable cutoff than mine is? These are the questions that must be answered before I'll consider changing my grading scale.

As I said, I like to measure things *objectively*, keeping my emotions and personal feelings out of the equation. My humanity, if you will, shines through in my instruction and in my personal interaction with my students; it does not belong in my assessment of their progress towards meeting specific academic goals.

Thanks to both of you for reading and commenting here on my blog :-)

Anonymous said...

Glad to see a teacher stick to his guns on grading. Frankly, it relates to work in the real world. Deadlines are deadlines, policies are policies. An example, in a former life, I worked for Social Services--invoices & check requests were due on Monday and Thursday p.m. with checks written on Tuesday & Friday. Invariably, someone would come to the bookkeeper on Wed. or Thurs. wanting a check & whine & complain when she wouldn't write it. One day, to shut someone up, she did. She was right back to writing checks every day. She complained to me about it & I told her, 'You changed the standard. Once you change the standard, that's it, that's the new standard.'
By the way, I also work in 'Education'--in the District Office. Do a lot with Teacher Quality and NCLB. I enjoy your perspective.