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We Need to Talk About (Chucking) Grading

It's the end of another school year. Paradoxically, I consider the finish line of grading to be the worst part of the whole process. The comments and the calculations are done, yes, but after I've submitted final grades I can expect anywhere from five to twenty emails from students with a wide range of legitimate to nonsensical complaints. Some seek extra credit after the semester has ended, others have calculated their own grade and are convinced I've made a mistake (and yes, sometimes that happens), some simply beg for a boost without any justification attached, and a choice few become outright hostile, sending me caustic, hastily written emails born of surprised rage. Each time I get one of those I have to resist the urge to remind them that it's not my fault if they didn't keep track of their work.

This last category is rare though because the majority of my students do track their grades----to an alarming degree, I'm now beginning to think. And yes, there's a level of hypocrisy here. I was just as invested in my grades when I was their age, sure that they were the sole key to a successful future. A close friend of mine used to tease me over the anxious, circular logic I'd fall into before any test: if I don't do well on the test I'll do poorly in the class, which will tank my GPA, which will ensure I don't get into a decent school, which means no good job, which means... on and on, essentially putting the entirety of my existence on the shoulders of one history final. Which of course is absurd. Looking back I can't recall what grades I got in high school or college, let alone the grades for specific tests (and none of this includes the math and language stuff I definitely failed). I was----and remain----a good student who went through rough patches and agonized over them like they actually had the affect on my future that I thought they did. So I get it.

But I also never emailed my teacher begging for a grade change.

I'm mindful of my age now, of how easily I could slip into, "Ugh these kids. In MY DAY" thinking, but I also can't deny that there's a change underway. Students, at least in my experience, really are more willing to challenge the grades they receive and there are aspects of this that are wonderful. I like that my students feel comfortable enough with me to question if I've made a mistake. I like that there's more transparency between us, that students know where these decisions are coming from and how they're being made. Though it's exhausting after two straight weeks of grading, I really am happy to answer all the legitimate questions and concerns. It's the students emailing me in panic or in anger that I worry about more.

I'm beginning to see that where transparency changes to entitlement is in the advancement of technology. Grades are no longer simply letters that students receive with no concept of how they came to be unless they went back to the syllabus and calculated things themselves. Now we have online tools like Canvas and Carmen that keep track of grades down to the nearest decimal. Which means that conversations are no longer, "Hey can you explain why I got a B+? I thought I'd done enough for an A-" and instead they’re more, "Hey I'm only .02% away from an A can't you just give that to me?" and I have to explain to students that no, I usually can't. Which frankly makes me feel like an asshole. Because 0.2%, Katie? Really? But all sorts of problems begin to crop up when you decide that Student X deserves a higher grade than they actually got----something that's already difficult to figure out in a 200 person class. How well do I know you out of this massive group?----and that in turn raises the question of where my new cutoff is. If I don't give students the grade that's actually calculated, should I boost the student who's just a percentage point away from an A? Two? If someone were to complain am I actually equipped to justify that Student X deserves an arbitrary boost while Student Z does not, without including rational like, "Student X emailed when I was in a much better mood. Tough luck, Student Z"? Nope. That really doesn't fly.

Yes, students have always been hyper-focused on grades, but technology is making it easier for the end result to completely overtake the class itself. I was in Starbucks (as if I'm ever not in Starbucks), pouring over my digital stack of papers when I heard two girls talking about their upcoming chem exam. They spent most of their time that afternoon calculating what exactly they needed to score on the test to attain a certain, final grade and I couldn't help but think about how they'd be better served actually studying. Of course, that's my inner Old Lady speaking. I don't know how much they'd already worked or planned to work later. These calculations could have been a much deserved break, but it doesn't lessen the fact that the brunette was thoroughly stressed, trying to figure out how she'd attain her coveted 93%. That first day of class students aren't interested in the contents of the syllabus; their material journey, so to speak. They want to know about the ending: "So what do I have to do to get an A?" The only exception to this is when popular culture comes into play. I'm lucky. Teaching modern films, fantasy, and fan works encourages my students to pause just long enough to go, "Wait, you're really going to let us read Homestuck?" Yeah! That's the sort of stupefied excitement I'm looking for! Not an indifferent trudge towards some arbitrary letter grade.

And honestly? It is pretty arbitrary. After four years of college, two years of a Master's, three years into my PhD, and three years into teaching, I can't help but think about how freaking useless grades are. Oh, they're still a hugely significant currency in our society, but that's just it. I'm beginning to think that they shouldn't be. Because grades don't tell you anything significant about the student. We assume that the Good Students get As and the Okay Students get Bs and Everyone Else gets Cs and below, but you know what it's actually like?

  • This student is a Good Student but their grade tanked because they missed too many classes. Sometimes that's due to "laziness." More often it's illness and work and family deaths.

  • This student got an A because they've improved a great deal----even though objectively their paper is still pretty terrible----while another student got a B+ because they clearly didn’t put in the kind of effort I’ve seen on previous assignments.

  • This student has excellent arguments but gets a low grade because they didn't meet length requirements. Or their paper is riddled with typos. Or they only bothered to read through the prompt once and missed something crucial. It says more about their knowledge of how to function as a college student than it does their intelligence or their understanding of the material.

  • I'm grading 80 exams over the course of a week and I start out with harsher standards than I end with. It's then common for me to go back and re-evaluate those initial grades, but sometimes I forget. Because I'm human.

We have a tendency to think about grades as an objective standard of how smart and hardworking a student is, but that's simply not the case. Students lean towards particular subjects, they go through difficult times, they make mistakes. Teachers also make mistakes, they can be bigoted, or have unrealistic standards due to personal biases. And at the end of the day it's all incredibly subjective, particularly in the Humanities. Carmen's wires got crossed this semester and I ended up grading a paper from another section. I gave the student a B. Later I found out that her instructor gave her an A. Am I too harsh a grader? Is the other teacher too lenient? Was I just having a rough night (yes, emotions absolutely influence grades) or was she having a good one? Who knows. The point is we're not machines and I cringe whenever I think about others judging students largely----sometimes solely----on a letter printed next to the class. Often times those letters only tell you which students got lucky in a variety of ways.

What does work, in my opinion, is comments. Evaluations. Something that takes the student's true individuality into consideration. I spend a horrendous amount of time writing marginal and final reflections on my students' papers, far more than the recommended amount than you'll find in books and teaching seminars. But I want my students to understand a) exactly why they received the grade they did, b) practical steps they can take to improve their writing, and c) what they're already doing well. That takes a lot of text space. And do you know how many students still email me demanding to know why they got that B+?

A lot.

This not only tells me that they're not following basic instructions ("Please download your paper and read the attached comments"), but that they really don't care about improving. And this isn't their fault. How can we possibly expect students to prioritize a nuanced explanation about organizing your argument when we put so much emphasis on the end result instead? We've created a society that prizes the end instead of the journey. Students have no patience for marginal comments because neither do their future administrators or employers. Only the grade matters and no, putting it in the context of, "Reading comments will help you get a higher grade later" doesn't cut it. Because this grade isn't up to their standard and ultimately writing takes time. So many students can't handle the fact that they're writing a B level paper and will continue to write a B level paper for the next three years because writing is also hard.

I don't have to admit at this point that I have a serious problem with American grading, do I?

Which is why as I inch closer to securing my degree I'm exploring schools like Prescott, Sarah Lawrence, and Brown that offer grading alternatives. I don't want to spend my entire career immersed in and enabling a system that puts so much unnecessary pressure on students; that sacrifices a love of learning for that straight A obsession. At my institution a D is still passing in a non-major subject, but it's the B+ that students look at with disgust and self-hatred. How can we keep cultivating a system that encourages that kind of mindset and the obsessive grade tracking that comes along with it?

Maybe it's just the Quaker in me speaking, but I really think it's time we considered chucking traditional letter grades. Yes, we've been having this conversation for a while, but we can't afford to let it come to a standstill. Because honestly? In the long run students and teachers both will be the better for it.


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