Grading is: Easy, Difficult, Imperfect, Impossible or Immoral

Author: Alex S

Posted by Alythea

Much of this comes from an exchange of emails I shared with a colleague. He remains convinced that grading is immoral. As a math teacher, grading is also of great concern to me given the prevailing view of math being more objective than the arts. In general, I think calling grading immoral is perhaps a bit too strong, but I think that depends very much on how kids and teachers treat the grades. I start off with my own short history, some surprises last summer and then follow with the best example of grading I’ve seen.

Unlike most math teachers, I don’t have a B.Sc. in math and math generally did not come easily for me. I was an average to poor math student for most of high school, including flunking calculus. I don’t think any of my four sisters even bothered to attempt grade 11 math, making me the (relative) math whiz of the family. Not surprisingly, math was my least favorite subject  throughout much of high school. My memory of calculus is of half the class struggling and not getting what the other half seemed to have figured out. The exception was in Mr. Jenkins’ grade 11 and grade 12 math classes. I often looked forward to these the most during the day. I don’t know that he taught math much differently, but Mr. Jenkins had a wonderful sense of humor and a very subversive way of looking at the school (often asking “Who was that?” after the headmaster had wandered into class for some reason or other). I remember doing extremely well in those classes and having a lot of confidence in my ability to learn math and correctly answer questions.

What I hope is interesting about my own math recollections is that, as it turns out, they weren’t very accurate. Over the summer I cleaned out my parents’ attic and came across some old report cards, which contained both my grades and the class averages. In Mr. Munro’s calculus class, I got a 45% while the class average was a lofty (for my school) 74%. My recollection of half my classmates struggling was incorrect – maybe it was just a couple of us, or just me! In Mr. Jenkins’ classes, my grades (70-85%) didn’t place me near the top of my class as expected, I was just an average student. How I ended up reflecting on those classes in the years to come actually had little to do with the grades I got. I can’t say what impact those grades had at the time, but my recollection was certainly more about the teachers than the grades (and really, I think that’s the way it should be).

“Master” teacher is a term that seems to be more prevalent today, but there’s only one I’ve ever seen with middle-school kids and that was one of my colleagues in Mexico. Grading in Mexico is done on a 1-10 scale with anything below 6 being a fail. I observed several of his Language Arts classes, including one very memorable one where the students had worked on presenting a newscast (acting as anchors, sports or weather reporters, etc.). This was in March or April, long after the newness of the school year has worn off – especially for 7th graders. They were also my math students so I knew them all well. As they were presenting their newscasts, he stood at the back of the room with his grading notebook and a pencil. Their presentations were great and I was quite impressed with the English they generated over a period of 3 class sessions in preparation.

After their presentations he pretended to write in grades in his grade book, though I observed that the pages remained blank. He gave the students an oral grade (all in the 7-10 range) in front of the class. He made remarks on various aspects of their English fluency and the grade was given to reflect the effort and progress that each student had made. The most remarkable thing about his grading was that the kids genuinely respected and valued his expertise and it was impossible to miss how much they valued his critique. They were pleased with their grades because they seemed to feel that they accurately reflected what they had put into their work. I also observed some of his writing classes, where he would on occasion hand out 0s for the students having made 5 spelling mistakes. I’m sure these were just as diligently recorded among his other grades :).

His view of grades was that it’s a game everyone has to play as a teacher, but how you decide to play that game is something that sets the tone for the kids. If, as teachers, we elevate grades or test scores to the high status of importance that governments do, we are also missing an opportunity to treat them as the extremely imperfect and often silly numbers that they are. Kids know little of what governments think about grades, but they are very attuned to their teachers (even if they wouldn’t admit it). As a kid, I remember my parents telling me that I wouldn’t get into the private high school or into my university choices if I didn’t get 80+ on everything. If my recollections of being a kid are correct, I don’t think I was doing too much planning ahead.

Craig’s view was to use grades as a way to motivate students. I’m attaching one of the letters he gave out to a couple of underachieving kids in each class during the first grading period. If the teacher has made their class meaningful to the students and has earned their respect (both of which I feel are the teacher’s responsibility), then I would suggest that this type of grade would have a lot more meaning to the student than a magic number on a report card.


A few final/random thoughts:

  • I’m all in favor of assigning grades in alternate ways and incorporating larger elements such as improvement, creativity, participation, effort, though I have also struggled with doing this in a non-artificial way.
  • I would also suggest that we shouldn’t limit our grading rubrics to 100% to account for the different places our students are starting from (I often graded out of 140% in Mexico!). Yes, it’s very subjective but if you’re trying to account for the students in your class that doesn’t bother me nearly as much as what’s lost by being “objective.” If each kid doesn’t come into their class with the same amount of knowledge (and they had different grades last year), why should they be graded on the same scale the next year, it might be the same scale, but that doesn’t seem fair to me.
  • In terms of math teaching, another colleague of mine had a very interesting idea that he shared with me about a teacher who returned tests without the grades on the papers. The students were free to come and see the teacher for their grade 2 days later (which few ever did), but the advantage of this was that it seemed to really place the emphasis on the student’s work (as opposed to the red number in the corner).
  • Most kids don’t really understand the mechanics of grading (certainly not the 7th graders I taught) because percentages are still a relatively fuzzy idea and deriving some grade as a percentage of other percentages is one step beyond that.

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