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My Grading Does not Teach My Students

At the end of this school year, I made the mistake of making 15 middle school papers due the same day final course grades were due. This left me about 30 minutes after school to rapidly grade these papers. Normally, assessing 15 papers would take me 2-3 hours. I like to read the papers thoroughly and leave comments explaining my judgments. On this day, though, I had no time for comments. Shockingly, having decided to grade the papers without offering comments, I was able to finish on time. I only give five grades for papers (F, C, B, A, A+), so I merely had to sort the papers into five piles. As I sorted, I discovered how easy it is to rank papers. For each paper, I worked my way down from an A+ with some of my go-to assessment questions. Are there any flaws at all? If so, it’s an A at best. Does it have a clear thesis? If not, it’s a B at best. Do the first few paragraphs make sense? If not, it’s a C at best. I soon realized I did not need to read the papers all the way through; I did not even have to think about what the students were saying. I only needed to read enough to know which pile to put the papers in. Easy and quick.

I suspect I would have given similar grades to these papers even if I had spent 2-3 hours on them. The extra time would not have changed my ranking; I would have used it trying to articulate what I was seeing to the students so they could better understand their own papers. That is where the learning happens in an assessment. So I do not think my students learned anything from the grades I gave to these papers. In fact, I doubt my students ever learn anything from the grades I give them. To articulate this doubt more fully, I offer the following argument.

1. Education exists to make a student a better person. All aspects of education aim towards this end.

2. Assessment is an aspect of education. So, assessment should help a student become a better person.

3. Assessment should help a student become a better person by teaching them what it means to do good work.

4. Some work is by nature quantitative: excellence is defined by a literal measurement. For example: “An excellent test has at least 23/25 correct answers.”

5. Some work is by nature qualitative; excellence is defined by a characteristic or an effect. For example: “This steak is delicious.”

6. Assessment can be either quantitative or qualitative.

7. Qualitative assessment is the best form of assessment for qualitative work. To assess such work quantitatively is to mistreat it. For example: To try to determine the quality of a Van Gogh painting by counting its brush strokes is to misunderstand the excellence of the painting. Aspects of the painting can be counted, but its excellence is not countable.

8. Papers – such as essays, poems, and stories – are qualitative works. A paper is excellent if it makes a logically valid argument in elegant language, lets the reader experience something, or embodies a universal mystery in a set of particulars. These are not strictly measurable qualities, though they are observable qualities. Excellence in a paper cannot be measured in a literal sense; it can only be judged. Articulating that judgment to the student is a means of educating the student.

9. Comments on a paper are qualitative assessments. For example: “You have no thesis, so your paper is aimless and ineffective;” “This paragraph carries rhetorical force;” “Your papers have been weak this trimester;” “Your comments in seminar have become more focused and insightful lately;” “This steak is raw, take it back to the kitchen.”

10. Grades are quantitative assessments, either literally or metaphorically.

a. Grades are literally quantitative when they measure something. For example: “This test has 23/25 correct answers.”

b. Grades are metaphorically quantitative when they use a quantitative symbol to stand for a qualitative judgment, especially for the sake of ranking. Example: “This is a three-star restaurant” means “this restaurant is qualitatively better than others; let’s use a 1-3 star ranking scale to differentiate them.”

11. To grade a paper is to evaluate a qualitative work quantitatively, either:

a. Literally, by counting some combination of things about it, or

b. Metaphorically, by qualitatively judging its worth and assigning it a symbol to more easily rank it against others.

12. To assess a paper quantitatively is not to educate the student who wrote it.

a. To quantify a paper literally is not to engage it correctly, because a paper is more than the sum of its parts. A Van Gogh painting is more than 80,000 brush strokes; a powerful argument is more than three pieces of evidence; a good poem is more than 14 lines of iambic pentameter. To reduce the excellence of a paper to something countable, or to some set of countable things, is to no longer treat is as a paper. If you do not treat a paper as a paper, you cannot thereby help a student understand what a paper should be.

b. To quantify a paper metaphorically is to give it a symbol in order to rank it against other papers. For example: “Susan’s paper is better than Joe’s, so Susan gets a four and Joe gets a three.” Susan’s paper may be better than Joe’s, but in a larger frame of reference, both papers might be either excellent or terrible. Ranking the papers does not accurately reflect the papers’ intrinsic value, then; it only sets them in competition against some small set of combatants. In this way, one paper may be an A in one class, a B in another, or a D in another, depending on its competition. This is a fine way to rank a group of students into “best, average, and worst,” but it does not help any students improve. Therefore, it is not a form of education.

13. To grade a paper is not to educate the student who wrote it.

I do not think my students learn from the grades I give them. Grades do not seem like part of education, strictly speaking: they do not help students become better people. I only hope I minimize the presence of these distractions enough for students to focus on their real education.

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