Local: Education

Grading students is hard to do

Local,Education,Erica Jacobs
It's the end of the semester, which means that 70 George Mason University students are hoping I will give them an A in their required advanced composition class. Many are mystified by how college teachers grade, and they are right that the process is more complicated than it appears.

As a culture, we grade everything -- from restaurants to universities. Then we argue about what those grades mean. Grades for college courses are similarly open to interpretation. Professors have their own systems of awarding marks at semester's end, and students have long since given up trying to figure out the method behind that madness.

High schools, on the other hand, pretend that a student will receive the same grade from every teacher of 11th grade English or U.S. history. But the truth, as any parent and student knows, is that grading policies -- at all levels -- are quite idiosyncratic.

What kids are reading
This weekly column looks at lists of books kids are reading in various categories, including grade level, book genre, and data from booksellers. Information on the books below came from the New York Times Book Review, May 8, 2011.
The New York Times best-seller list of children's picture books
» The Easter Egg by Jan Brett (Ages 4-8)
» Silverlicious by Victoria Kann (Ages 4-8)
» A Friend for Einstein, the Smallest Stallion by Charlie Cantrell and Rachel Wagner (Ages 3-8)
» Lego Star Wars by Simon Beecroft (Ages 7 and up)
» Ladder to the Moon by Maya Soetoro-Ng (Ages 4-8)
» A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip Stead (Ages 2-6)
» Of Thee I Sing by Barack Obama (Ages 5-8)
» Ladybug Girl and the Bug Squad by David Soman and Jacky Davis (Ages 3-5)
» Little White Rabbit by Kevin Henkes (Ages 4-8)
» Press Here by Herve Tullet (Ages 4-8)

College settings acknowledge and embrace this, while high schools often create elaborate rubrics and grading schematics that give courses the appearance of uniform standards, when the reality is more nuanced. Different courses use different methods of learning; why shouldn't those variables be reflected in the grading process?

In my advanced composition classes, for instance, you might think that the very best writers in each class would receive A's, and the weakest writers would be asked to repeat the course. But the success of writing classes often rests on the participation of students in bringing drafts to class and commenting thoughtfully -- in writing and orally -- on one another's work. This workshop format requires responsible participation, and students are given grades that reflect that.

The best writers in my sections might not attend class very often or might forget to bring first drafts -- figuring that their superior writing abilities will enable them to get an A with only one draft. In these hypothetical cases, A's on papers will not be enough to earn an A for the semester because their writing groups have been denied their participation in the process.

Likewise, conscientious students are rewarded for responsible participation in writing groups, even if their final products are not the most gracefully written. Is this fair? Any teacher who has been faced with a group that has nothing to do because a classmate has failed to bring in a draft, would agree this is fair.

What happens when administrators push toward uniform grading for younger students? My experience in three public high schools is that teachers know their way around the dictates of administrators who have forgotten that grades are more than the sum of test scores. On paper, grading standards may look uniform in similar courses, but teachers include factors such as participation and homework -- additional expectations that serve to propel students' marks up or down from the average of their test grades. In most schools, grading is as idiosyncratic as it ever was.

Grades, like evaluations in real life, are the sum of complex factors, and that's the way it should be. On the college level, that complexity is acknowledged. In many high schools, the myth of the objective, uniform grading standard lives on; luckily, most students and parents know better than to believe common myths about high schools!

Erica Jacobs, whose column appears Wednesday, teaches at George Mason University. Email her at

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