All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


24 June 2011

What Grades Mean

Much like diplomas (see discussion in this post), grades are carriers of information. They represent a type of evaluation. Unfortunately, much like words, they often mean very different things to different people. This leads grades to be an imperfect indicator of a student's academic achievement, which is why standardized tests are so popular: whatever a 2080 SAT means, it means the same thing for everyone. That is a huge advantage not to be dismissed lightly.

A discussion about what's "above average" at Joanne Jacobs' site recently segued into a discussion about grade inflation, and one of the regular commenters there, Sean Mays, made the following observation:

C is a penalty grade now, has been for some time.

Now, I don't think it makes sense to talk about what a grade "is" in some unified objective sense -- other than to say that a grade is a letter, a bit of language, and an evaluation. There's a difference between what a grade is and what a grade means, and sometimes I think that our use of language, while what we really mean is clear enough, can cloud the issue. So forgive me for being nitpicky -- I just want to be precise.

Anyway, Sean Mays is absolutely right in spirit: an awful lot of people see a "C" as a "penalty grade". I get students all the time who get, say, a C+ on a paper, and they come to office hours slightly indignant and ask, "But what did I lose points for?" They're flummoxed when I tell them they didn't do anything wrong at all, but that the things they did right were just uninspired, rote, and merely adequate. They demand to know what "mistake" they made to deserve such a grade. When I try to point out the very obvious differences between some exemplar "A" paper and the paper that they turned in, they continue to assert that they didn't do anything wrong.

Clearly Sean Mays has bugged my office.

This all leads me to suspect -- these are just suspicions and I stand ready to be corrected -- the following about the junior highs and high schools where these students learn their grading-response habits:

1) I suspect that it's assumed (a la Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds) that everyone starts out with an A. The A is yours to lose, as they say.

2)I suspect that it's thought that a student must make mistakes to lose points, otherwise the student gets to keep the "A". Other grades -- B, C, D, and F -- are, as Sean Mays says, penalties imposed for saying something other than the "right answer".

3) I suspect that, in line with #1 and #2 above, grades are seen by students as a sort of mechanical "response" to a performance by the pupil, rather than an evaluation by the teacher of the student's work. The student mindset does not seem to admit of the possibility of a grade being a judgment -- it's an automatic reaction to an approved stimulus, and if the student performs properly, he or she is entitled to the grade. As a side note, a lot of people probably see this model of grading as a net benefit, and think that something as important as grades shouldn't be subject to individual proclivities and opinions.

People do sue over grades, suggesting that they feel as if there is an entitlement to them after certain types of performance (examples of litigation here and here and here). It makes sense that, in the face of such an attitude, schools might play along and remove the individual teacher as much as possible from grading. (For a discussion about how the importance of grades warps the educational setting, see my guest-post at Joanne's blog here.)

4) Likewise, I suspect that there are administrative practices in place that reinforce the notion that if the student believes that he or she has performed the appropriate stimulus, any grade other than an "A" must be the result of individual teacher bias: the teacher doesn't like me, doesn't like boys, doesn't like white people... whatever. My suspicion (and it's just a suspicion) is that high school and junior high administrations cater to this sort of view by pressuring the teachers to give certain types of grades, by overruling teachers' grade decisions when there's enough squawking, and generally creating opportunities to reinforce the view that the teacher is wrong about low grades that are given.

As I said, these are just suspicions based on the products that are coming to me from high schools. And I'm no doubt getting a slanted view, as my "evidence" consists entirely of college-bound students. But if my suspicions are even on the right track, then what a grade means for many teachers and students in junior high and high school is very, very different than what a grade means to a number of college professors and instructors.

Are grades "supposed" to differentiate between different levels of threshold success? In other words, if the assignment is, "Perform some music", do both the person who bangs out "Happy Birthday" on the piano and the person who composes and conducts an original symphony get an "A"?

I'm not just talking about Grade Inflation, though certainly that's a related topic. I'm talking about whether grades are actually capable of, and intended to be capable of, marking a difference between mere fulfillment of the assignment and some true achievement of excellence. As I said elsewhere, the variety of human ability is quite large; we might think that our evaluative tools should be appropriately sensitive to those variations. I'm getting the distinct impression that we're moving away from such sensitivity.

Grades mean things, but they don't mean the same thing to all people. As with much else, our ability to use them in fruitful and productive ways as a society will depend in great degree on our collective ability to be clear and explicit about what we're doing.


gallowshillbilly said...

This reminds me of the scene in "Clueless" where the student renegotiates her report card one teacher at a time until all her grades are high. Her father tells her he is extremely proud of this accomplishment, prouder than if she had actually earned the high marks.

Your three suspicions are valid. There is also an extremely widespread practice of mixing all sorts of dross into the grading decision, such as a bunch of bonus points for passing in your lunch paperwork. It's hard to make grading useful as a form of instructive feedback under such circumstances.

Cedar said...

I agree with many of your assessments of how students perceive grades.
But judging from your examples, and your annoyance at how your students can complain about them, I approach grades differently.
I don't think students start with an A, but I think they should be able to see what they need to do to get an A. I think the goal should be that it be equally realizable to every student in the class, what the criteria will be for an A, before they hand in the assignment.
This is why I am in favor of using rubrics whenever possible, givign students the rubric in advance, and making it absolutely clear what will be on the exam. This need not sacrifice rigor ("the exam will consist of a subset of these 300 questions"). I think it is almost impossible to place good writing on a rubric, any more than it is to place a great meal on a rubric. But I think teaching often starts with recipes, and we shouldn't be afraid of helping students use recipes before we give them the keys to the kitchen.
I also notice that this cuts down on student negotiating, and focuses the conversation when they do.

Michael E. Lopez said...


I think I agree with almost everything you say, except this:

"I think the goal should be that it be equally realizable to every student in the class."

The way I read this -- which may not be the way you mean it -- is that the "A" level performance needs to be something within the actual ability of every student so that the grade itself is an expression of effort and attention, and not a question of talent.

If that's how you mean it, then think I disagree with this, because I think that if you have your assignments set up so that the lowest-ability kid in your class actually has a realistic (and not just theoretical) shot at an "A", then you're grading way too leniently, and you won't get enough differentiation at the high end to make the grades useful for anything.

This rather intractable problem can, of course, be palliated to the degree that you have ability tracking for your class composition. If all the students are in relatively the same ability ranges, then it's hardly a problem at all to have the A-level be attainable for each and every student.

SO I guess there's two ways I could agree with you entirely: if we both agree that highly differentiated subject-area tracking is a good thing, then I think we don't disagree about the attainable "A". And if you meant what you said from a theoretical rather than practical view of attainability, then we probably don't disagree, either.

Cedar said...

@Michael, I think you are probably balking at my philosophy of testing and grading, which is this: Plan and design tests and grades to structure the process of a student's studying. Don't worry about providing a meaningful signal to anyone but your students.
I don't see my role at all to make grades meaningful to future employers, or graduate schools, or whatever selective purpose they will be used for. Not to say that I disagree with those purposes, but that I don't see my role as important in that.
Part of the reason I can abdicate this is that students put themselves on a curve.
We may be speaking differently, since I gather you probably grade more papers than I do. But I try to approach papers the same way. I give out a rubric, which is more or less a checklist, and an A is within the range of possibility for every student. I understand that in terms of ability and preparation, some students would have to take 10 hours to get an A, and some can only take 2. The students who need to devote 10 hours are often the least likely to do so. But when they are, I want to meet them and help them. I don't see the point in rewarding ability, but I want to reward conscientiousness (which is also just as correlated with college success as ability measures such as SAT)
For example, if I had a very dedicated ESOL student, who wanted to put in that 10 hours (or 12, or whatever) and came in to me asking for help, and followed my instructions to a T, I would hope that she would feel rewarded for that 10 hours, not just in improved mastery of the topic, but in the grade as well. If I gave her a C, I damn well better be able to show her the specific ways that she could have improved.
Seeking clarity in feedback and criteria need not mean lenient grading, as you imply. And clear criteria are of course not always possible in the real world, but they are a much better way of learning, in my opinion, and reduce some of the inherent unfairness endemic to higher education.

Michael E. Lopez said...


I totally understand your approach, and the sort of Utilitarian analysis you've done with respect to learning outcomes. But (1) I'm not a Utilitarian, and (2) I'm a selfish bastard. It's all about ME at the end of the day.

I know that the grades I give are being sent around on transcripts to people. When they send around a transcript that has an "A" that I've given, it's as if my students were taking a note that I've signed that says "Michael E. Lopez, Esq., JD MA, certifies that the work performed by this student met the "A" level of performance." Likewise for the B's, the C's, the D's, and even the F's.

Not only do I know that the students are doing this -- I know that in many cases it's their primary motivation for taking the class in the first place. That knowledge makes it impossible for me to focus entirely on using grades as a pedagogic tool: they are a matter of my professional reputation, and I take that very seriously indeed.

I'm all in favor of clear standards and rubrics; we don't disagree on that at all. But I've got my standards for undergraduate work, and an "A" is only within the range of possibility for all of my students on the most broad, encompassing sense of "within the range of possibility". Which may be how you meant it, in which case, once more, we don't disagree at all.

But let me explain.

I have students who can write A papers in 2 hours, and some who can do it in 10 hours. I have students who could (note the switch to the subjunctive) do it in 50 hours.

But I also have students who could come to every single minute of every office hours session, who could ask for more help, and who still, in the 10 weeks I have these students, wouldn't be able to pull themselves up to an "A" for any given paper under any circumstances.

It's not really their "fault" in any way, and I certainly don't want to give the impression that I'm prejudging the students' abilities. For those whose first work is abysmal, I hold open the possibility and the hope that their midterms were just the result of laziness, or being overworked, or maybe they are just probing the waters to see if I'm an easy grader. I'll talk to them, invite them to come talk to me about their papers, and so forth.

But time and again the finals come in, and while sometimes my hopes are fulfilled, oft they are dashed against the rocks of my students' actual abilities.

So it is in this sense that, yes, an A is "possible". Yes, they have the information they need to be able to do it. But, really, they can't. They haven't had enough writing instruction, enough practice with textual analysis, and with just 10 weeks I can't bring them up to speed. The best I can give is a bit of a crash course to take care of some of the more egregious problems. Excellent writing, as I'm sure you know, is hard. It requires a LOT of practice. Some of my students have thousands of hours of practice, and some of my students have maybe a couple of hundred.

Cedar said...

I think we probably end up with very similar results. And I agree that an A is sufficiently far away from some of my students. But many of these students are not really hoping for an A, they are C students hoping for a B. I want them to be able to see that from where they stand. I think you probably feel the same way.
I agree that my pedagogical framing is certainly not how my students conceive of grades.
I guess for me the credentialing and signaling aspect of my job depress me, because I see my role as essentially irrelevant to that. Yes, every grade that I give does come with that implicit signature. But students curve themselves. My role as judge or evaluator is essentially irrelevant and redundant. My job is to put a rigorous, engaging, informational, and inspirational educational experience in front of the students as I can.
Which is a long way of saying that grading depresses me, because it often highlights the mismatch between the way the students see my job and the way I do.

Michael E. Lopez said...

Yeah, it depresses me, too. For the same reason.

One of my English teachers once told me that Sisyphus' only escape was to love the rock.

So I love the rock.

Usman Shahid said...

The biggest problem is that admission at higher level doesn't see how much the student is capable, how much he had worked he had during during whole life, but one C in master degree destroy the whole life hard works and consistent A's in bachelors and schools level. This has happened to me, one C is not allowing me to get PhD Scholarship. So what is your take on it