Monday, June 2, 2014

Grading and Inflating

The application of grade inflation - via source
Is grading fairly worth the fight?

The art of grading is something that many teachers have traditionally struggled to grasp completely. More complicated than it sounds, grading correctly and efficiently depends on many factors: From the type of item being graded - essay, quiz, test, etc. - to the importance of each work. It can be time-consuming, exhausting, stressful, complex, and let's face it, difficult. Always foreboding and relentless. It never goes away. Even at the end of the school year, it sits in regression, waiting for September to roll around once again, when it can clutter our schedules once more.

Grading increases in difficulty as the Year levels get higher. And even more so when it comes to different subjects - say a science paper versus an English essay. Let's take English for example. There is an obvious difference when marking a Year 7 assignment versus a Year 11 essay. Using simple check marks for including basic things in a task turn into band levels and rubrics that are complexity and subtlety in full combination. It can be hard to decide whether a student has earned a band 4 versus a band 5 on their topic development or structure. You start questioning yourself and often involve other teachers in your grading by asking them their opinion on the particular assignment. However, their perspective and value of certain concepts in writing can be different then yours. You can't possibly have them look at all 30 of your essays, can you?

And therein lays the heart of this post: Grading inflating vs grading fairly. Just as teachers have different opinions on what specific grade a student earned, so do the students offer different opinions on whether the grade they got is the grade they deserve. Obviously there is a degree of bias when it comes to the student. They are trying to get as high a mark as they can. Whether it's because they want to go to a better university or impress their parents, or simply because they want to pass a  particular subject or reach their target grade. All teachers understand this. However, whether any of those singular objectives merits them receiving a particular grade is an entirely different matter.

When it comes to grading fairly, teachers have several things to consider. One obvious point is how much time to invest in each paper. We all have lives to live outside of school, yet for many students their school marks are their lives. Many have put in hours of work to put together essays that they feel are worthy of a decent score. Do we spend our entire evenings grading every inch of this paper, meticulously noting every point on a rubric? Or do we cut corners, generalize, save some time in the process and appease the students - whether they care or not? These factors affect our thought processes when sitting down to grade a stack of assignments that have a deadline attached to them.

I think many teachers juggle between these two approaches. They selectively choose which items to mark quickly and which ones to diligently invest more time in grading. For example, a short quiz that is worth 10 marks versus a end-of-year essay that is worth 25% of their overall marks. With the increase in value of a particular item comes the natural increase in student drive to fight for the grades they think they deserve. Conflict is inevitable. I remember one time, a few years after graduating high school myself, going back to my school to visit several of my former teachers. I still have vivid memories of stepping into the classroom of my English teacher to say hello, only to find her surrounded by three students who were begging to get a "few percent more" on their final marks in order to give them a better chance to get into specific universities they had applied to. Two of them were crying as she vehemently justified her reasoning behind their grades. It was painful to see, but I later learned to understand the difficulty when I had begun to teach myself years later.

I read an interesting article a few weeks ago regarding grade inflation titled, "Confessions of a Grade Inflator" by Rebecca Schuman. In it, she openly and honestly writes about her belief that grading fairly is just not worth the fight. I love the candidness of this article. Although it is specifically talking about Professors and their difficulty with pleasing "the customers" or students, I think the piece holds true with secondary schools as well.

Rebecca writes that "If I graded truly fairly - as in, a C means actual average work - the "customers" would do their best to ruin my life." Yes, she praises the hardliner teachers who uphold their values and their stalwart belief in marking properly and correctly, however, she also understands that battling constantly with the regular complaint of certain students - and in our case, inevitably parents - is just not worth it.

Rebecca then goes on to display several tweets from teachers who have expressed their frustration at dealing with students and their endless complaints. They range from "I got a student who wanted me to bump up a grade on their paper from a B- even though they plagiarized two wiki articles" to "Mom called. 'Nuff said." Without a doubt, it's frustrating, especially when you are dealing with teenagers who genuinely believe they deserve better marks and get emotionally upset when they don't receive the grade they know will get them into a specific university or secure a scholarship. You also have the lazy students who fight tooth and nail for a mark that they know their parents will accept, even though you both know they didn't deserve it one bit.

Rebecca fairly assesses that in this "relentless culture of assessment and testing, everything our students have done since the age of 5 have been graded - but almost all of those grades have been "exceptional," so the exception is now the norm." She admits that she cares about her students and that she "can't handle being the person who causes their young faces to crumble at the sight of that B, or, egad, C, which they equate with abject failure. I don't want them to think they failed, and stop trying altogether." All teachers can see themselves in this role. It's a complicated issue. Blaming the system comes next, as does questioning whether we should even be assessing so much work. Standardized testing vs knowledge vs actual skills. The balance is elusive.

Having moderation sessions with your subject's department helps a lot as you have your own colleagues taking a look at the work you have graded and agreeing or disagreeing with the marks you have assigned. It adds more credibility to your grading and instills more confidence in your abilities. This way you also have the Head of your department ready to back you up in case parents get involved and students push the issue all the way.

I find myself being more of a hard liner who sticks to the rubric and am always able to justify the grades I give my students. I can say, here, this is what you were able to show me in your essay. This is what you need to improve on. They can see it, as well as their parents. It's time consuming, but it's been the only way for me to feel good about grading and what I do, even if the hours of sleep are shortened. That way I can stand by my decisions and assessments at all times, even for the ones who are failing. I am not trying to crush the spirit of my students or watch them fail in some sort of display of power. I just want them to take responsibility for their work, take it seriously and learn from their mistakes. I want them to earn their grades honestly and legitimately. Granting them inflated marks that they didn't earn in the least is not the way to do it.

With the end of year marking in full approach, grading fairly and effectively is just one of many things to keep a close eye on with vigilant thought. The system is not perfect, but we can try to hold on to consistency in grading from our end, at the very least.

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Thanks for sharing your two pence!


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