A ramble on grading: its purpose and its effects

Wes wrote:

The comment on how all this math gives the illusion of objectivity to an argumentative parent reminds me of a quote from long ago (when computers were very expensive):

   If you put garbage in a computer nothing comes out but garbage.
   But this garbage, having passed through a very expensive machine,
   is somehow ennobled and none dare criticize it.

I don’t know what post this was in response to (I haven’t gotten to it yet but I’m sure it’s in my queue) but I am overjoyed to see it. I have sworn off participating in these listservs – all of the fl teacher ones, I mean – with mixed results. If I say something about the amount of work that has gone into figuring out these elaborate systems of measuring and tracking student performance, I’ll be told that’s just part of my job. If I question the effect of such grading on students, I’ll be told that I’m part of the wishy-washy, Whole Language, standards lowering, Alfie Kohnish movement in education. If I wonder what might have been done in the time and with the effort it takes to maintain these elaborate systems, I’ll be accused of questioning the teaching quality of those putting these systems into effect. I know for a fact that Bob and Bill are excellent teachers, so it would be clear to anyone who knows me that I’m not saying that.

If we look at many of the posts in the thread, we might notice how many teachers admit to struggling with grading. Here’s my question, a question that I flatter myself goes to the heart of what we do: if the goal of a fl class is to teach L2 and all people can learn/acquire L2 and all our students do, shouldn’t we be giving out As to everyone?

What I read in the posts on grading rubrics and calculators and categories and weights and mathematical formulas is that all these activites, if done and done right, will lead to proficiency. And yet, if I remember correctly, at least one teacher pointed out the conundrum of the student who does not turn in a lot of homework but uses L2 quite nicely or the student who shows great enthusiasm and is learning but gets all mixed up on tests or the student who patiently drudges through each assignment only to come out the other end with a big huh? when address in the L2.

I’m by no means saying the only criterion we use is proficiency (as I define it); I myself include effort – is the student studying, completing assignments, and so on and yet not up to par on comprehension (I focus on that b/c I teach a Latin course in which reading is the goal, not speaking, writing, or listening comprehension, although I include those in the classwork)? Others may want to grade on a variety of factors e.g. participation in cultural activities. What I question is not just how much all these activities contribute to proficiency but how much time and effort is robbed from the teacher when he spends so much time and effort on grading?

This is where we get into ad hominem arguments, i.e. am I saying that Teacher X is not teaching as well as she could b/c she has an elaborate system of grading which requires a lot of work to implement? Some will deny it takes that much work and others will say it’s part of the job and others will say it only seems like a lot of work to me b/c I’m stupid. My real question is just what these grades indicate. Does a 76% on a worksheet assignment or a 68% on a conversational participation rubric ……. #1 truly indicate that student’s proficiency? #2 promote motivation and enthusiasm on the student’s part?

My answer to these questions has been to focus on two aspects of the classroom: proficiency and effort. In this way I can give high marks to students who achieve in either area. I’ve found both areas well represented among my students: the kid who is oppositional or slow on the uptake or disturbed but who delights in L2 or works hard. My reward has been praise from just about everyone, which surprises me. I would have thought that at least one person – a parent, an administrator, a student – would have criticized me for being too easy, teaching a fluff class, etc. The only time that happened was when I was teaching social studies and the comment from a principal when I turned in my grades was, “What? You didn’t fail anyone?” Not, “I notice that among the Cs and Ds you have given numerous As and Bs……” but why had I not failed people?

That really stuck with me. My student teaching, which took place in the same school I worked in for 20 years (I work in a different school now, my third year), made it clear that the D- grade was for those kids who were clearly disturbed or lacking in ability of the most basic sort. We didn’t fail them if they showed up for class. Who we did fail, and I failed from time to time, were those kids who put nothing into the class despite being able to. I have no problem with that.

Two things to consider: one is that I went into teaching with an extremely strong background in mental health work. I hesitate to use the word counseling b/c teachers then think immediately of school counseling, which is misleading. Yet when I say “mental health”, people laugh about dealing with “crazy” kids. But the simple fact is, I worked in a variety of settings dealing with people in trouble one way or the other, including ten years in a Children & Family program at a major inner-city mental health center. That gave me a strong understanding of what kids go through. I’m as heartened to read so many teachers on listservs who seem aware of this as I am disheartened to read so many who seem to believe there’s nothing wroing with a kid that a great big F on his report card won’t cure.

If I give an F, it’s because the student has failed himself. I know that sounds trite but it represents the minimum we can ask of students. While I applaud teachers who take on courses with high standards, most of us teach courses that are, in one way or another, required, either for graduation or for college admission. When we receive into our classrooms students who have received relatively poor educations in the lower grades and yet have any ambition for higher education, I do not think it’s our place to suddenly decide our class will be the one that will show these students just how lousy their education has been. If I were to start teaching my fl class using grammar terminology the students had never been exposed to and saying, “I have my standards; here’s the bar: jump over it” and passing only those who could run home and say, “Quick, Mom, Dad, tell me the difference between restricted and non-restricted adjectival clauses”, I guess I would have a reputation as a tough teacher. To me, the reputation should be one of an idiot teacher.

The other factor that must be taken into account when deciding whether the grading is unbalanced is the nature of the students attracted to fl courses. In my case, I have had two different situations, both of which stacked the odds in favor of higher grades. The first school’s feeder schools were all Title I schools but north of us was a well-off Mormon community that had supported the school for many years. Not only were Mormon students well-prepared but, due to their tradition of going on missions, they were often highly motivated for fl study. So I was getting the cream of the crop, esp in my Russian and Latin classes (the installment of Russian was a direct result of Gorbachev opening up the Soviet Union to LDS missionaries). In my current school, a private Catholic preparatory school, students are intensely interviewed and screened, so although all must take a fl, the pool is already stocked with ambitious, motivated and well-educated students, many from elementary Catholic schools.

Now, if my goal is basic proficiency in L2, is it any suprise so many would get top grades? OTOH, many teachers see the classroom as a field of competition and no matter how well someone does, if someone else does even marginally better, the first student’s grade will drop and there will be no recourse. I’m not sure if teachers realize how frustrating that is to admins and counselors who are dealing with either a top student or a marginal student who just cannot get past “Mr. Duffy’s class” b/c Mr. Duffy has decided he will be the last upholder of Civilization and Standards.

What if a high school diploma were enough? How then could we h.s. teachers grade? But when you know that almost all your students are going on to higher education and colleges are so swamped with applicants that they’ll use anything to weed some out, will you be that C or even B that will put the seal on a perfectly decent person’s chances of getting into college? Could this be behind the so-called grade inflation observers have noted?

Again, I have nothing but praise for teachers who teach tough courses that not everyone can do well in, nor do I have a problem with setting up some classes competitively. But then I remember P.E. classes where only the “jocks” had any attention paid to them; it wasn’t supposed to be a weeding-out process for the football team but a way to promote healthy living. So much for that. What about us? Is our job to weed out, in the words of a Russian teacher, those who don’t understand grammar and just teach those who do? And what proof does this genius have that teaching grammar produces proficiency? Could it be that those who do well in grammar are also reading L2 and doing self-talk (I was shocked to discover, in a methods class, that not everyone sets up scenarios in their head to see if they can talk their way through it in L2 – e.g. walking down the hallway at school and imagining an Urdu-speaking family coming in and needing help with the registration process)? The simple conflation of factors seen in so many posts just boggles the mind when we realize they all had courses in research design if they have masters.

Well, this has been long and is only the start of a massive onslaught of blog entries I intend to make over the next week or so. I hope it inspires responses.

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