Archives For grading

Ode on Grading (Earned)

January 28, 2013 — 2 Comments

The semester just ended, and there are papers to grade. In addition, the midterms are done, and there are essays and papers to grade. I am surrounded by paper. A recent article titled “Why Teachers Secretly Hate to Grade Papers” by John T. Tierney in The Atlantic received quite a bit of buzz, with most teachers flat out saying, “Secretly? There is nothing secret about our hating to grade!”

The article discussed the inability to be fair when grading, but I particularly enjoyed the following paragraph:

The sheer drudgery and tedium. When you’re two-thirds of the way through 35 essays on why the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of McCulloch v. Maryland is important for an understanding of the development of American federalism, it takes a strong spirit not to want to poke your eyes out with a steak knife rather than read one more. I have lots of friends who are teachers and professors. Their tweets and Facebook status updates when they’re in the midst of grading provide glimpses into minds on the edge of the abyss — and, in some cases, already deranged.

Since several of my classes are deep in the Odyssey, the “poke your eyes out” reference kicked all my Greek allusions into high gear. Consequently, instead of full-fledged blog post that will drain me of the minutes I have before grades are due, I leave you with a quick poetic attempt to capture my grading frustration:

Tantalus Has It Easy

My desk is piled high
with papers and essays that had been assigned
during the Christmas break,
when Dawn spread her rosy fingers on the
new year calendar empty of responsibilities.

Sing in me, Muse, and tell me
What was I thinking? an invocation I repeat
with each carefully completed grading rubric
stapled to a hastily penned paper.

More than one paper bears the correcting
suggestions I had made days ago without
the corrections I suggested. I am Cassandra,
unhappy prophetess whose warnings
go unheeded.

I hear a teacher’s scantron sheets
click noisely in the teacher’s room next door.
“Grading’s done,” he chortles, while I am
caught between the Scylla of unintelligible answers
and the Charybdis of illegible handwriting.

I see the PE teacher leaving early to workout
the stress of the week at the local fitness club.
Apparently, fate favors
the Olympically-sculpted

While I, like Sisyphus,upload_6i2s45k8nordin9cemradc8sv7249883.jpeg-final
reach for another paper to roll up
the grading curve.

Two weeks ago, I composed a post that questioned whether I should pass or fail E  a student in my English II class who could meet many of the benchmarks of English II but who had failed to complete the  assignments; I could not justify a passing grade. The post was published  a week later in the Teacher edition of Education WeekThe student’s pseudonym  “E” was replaced with “Elena”, and the post received a spectrum of replies (71 to date) which ranged from the hard-line stance of “flunk her” to a more forgiving “grades are meaningless so pass her” position. Responses questioned whether assessments are necessary to measure student learning; others argued that assessments are a means to measure student responsibility. What was the most striking was that these variety of replies to my post revealed the deep divides in teachers and other stakeholders’ opinions on assessing student performance.

There were a few answers that suggested  “how to” better measure student standards. For example, Craig M advocated a standards-based, formative/summative, 4-point grading noting “the 4-point scale changes the difference between passing and a zero from 60% to 20% (a 1 is a D)” and recommended I “look up The Case Against the Zero by Reeves.” Another practical suggestion came from LearnOutside, “The key accommodation that I always made in my classroom was to have a reasonable ‘late work’ policy that accommodated for some of my students’ inability to plan for the future. To me, it made sense to allow them to get partial credit. It tracks with what we know about the teenage brain’s capacity to deal with future risk/reward, and in the end gets them to do the work.”

A response by DrKenGoldberg did detect that E’s current status was not an isolated problem, suggesting that “these issues are often seeded by homework difficulties in the early grades….what most teachers don’t see is ‘the rest of the story’. I admit that for reasons of privacy, I did not detail E’s complicated family history.

There were responses that urged me to think beyond the limits of grades such as the post by Jerry Heverly who offered, “How foolish does all this national testing seem when I think of students like E and when I think of the people who have enriched our society without a high school diploma?” Similarly, Jan Priddy suggested, “It’s another matter of judgment. Education is not the same as building a roof. It’s an appealing analogy, but our students are people, not carpenters, and as teachers we work with minds, not lumber.” Similarly, Dan M noted that, “Most likely, E is not going to be entering corporate America upon graduation from high school or college if she chooses to go. Her actions have demonstrated evidence of this. But that doesn’t mean that she will be a failure in life. One of the mistakes we as educators make is trying to fit (and assess) all of our students within the same paradigm.”

Some were concerned with legal problems that arise from grading, especially Michael Keathley who stated, “We are a culture dominated by legalities. If such students were passed without demonstrating the knowledge by completing written assignments, etc., certainly lawsuits would follow.” His response was echoed by R.x  who suggested, “teachers can only assign the grades their administrations will support.” I would like to think that it was their responses and not my original post that led Thien Ha to conclude that, “this proves that American education system have too much powers on the hands of parents and students than school administrators, and teachers. Many students must pass even though they were not qualified to pass, since teachers have no power to fail or if they fail many students, they would be evaluated by parents by principals as a failure teacher, they might got fired.  “

Certain responses were sympathetic, the “I’ve been there” commiserating type. Duane Swacker considered that I should, “always give the students the benefit of the doubt as there is no teacher grading system that is accurate to even 5-10 percentage points. It’s a fallacy most believe in but grades, standards and standardized testing are all falsehoods with many errors involved in the process.” However, ArtG  scolded my “story of muddled thinking or rather, muddled by emotional overflow”.  In my defense, I would argue that he has never met E or seen her interactions with others; she is difficult not to like.

Ultimately, the see-saw of debate tipped toward taking a hard-line approach. Momwithbrain1 bluntly expressed, “today [students] think they can skate by and when they graduate and take on a job, that simply is NOT the reality. I’d rather they learn life lessons in school. She may have gained some knowledge in the class but she is also learning that she can be irresponsible and lazy and it has no impact on her.” Bntradical agreed stating, “When Elena enters the work world, she will get the job, because she knows the content, but if she fails to meet the real world deadlines, she will get fired. Thus, if you fail to fail her now, you will be failing her later in life, failing yourself, and failing society.” MrLionsDen added, “Failing, at any grade level, is an important life lesson and it’s not terminal.”

Nick Mangieri pointed out the problems that I could experience in the future saying, “What happens in the future when it becomes known that you don’t have to turn in the work in Mr/Mrs X’s class because you’ll pass anyway as long as he/she likes you?” Certainly BK was the most chastising, ” I really, really do not see a dilemma here. You are being paid whatever your contract says – and it’s fair, even though you are also ‘more than a unit to be measured.’ What if instead you were paid whatever your principal ‘feels like’? It seems like this is what you are considering here – and it’s utterly unfair to all the other kids who DID pass and DID earn their A’s and B’s.” Finally, I feel particularly responsible for the students of agardne3 who concluded that, “Your article has pushed me over the edge to grade them as they deserve.”

Numerous replies concluded that I speak to E once more as an intervention, a practice I had performed daily the entire fourth quarter. I was quite serious in when I spoke to E once more the last week of school; I did not hold out much hope after the conversation. I had heard her promises before.

But E strolled in the morning the day grades closed. Clutched in her hand were three missing major assignments…two dialectical journals and one motif paper. She sheepishly handed them to me, “I don’t care if they only get a few points, but would these be enough to pass?”

Yes. The missing work, given even a few points (20/100 each) would push her GPA into passing English for the year.

So I passed her.

She obviously was following the grade change on Powerschool,  and that afternoon she sent me an e-mail:

 I am so excited I passed, Thanks for the second chances!! If it wasn’t for those I would be taking it over. I highly appretiate [sic] it (:

Sharing this story of E has reassured me that I am not alone in wrestling with the obligations of judging student performance in a classroom. This forum has certainly informed me on methods I could employ in order to avoid this problem in the future. Despite the divisions in the commenters’ opinions, each response indicated a desire to help me be a better teacher, or at least help me avoid the an unnecessary dramatic finale for next year.