Grades are evil

A “necessary” evil, some would say. But why necessary? Because, for economic reasons, we insist on having far more students per class than an instructor can possibly give adequate individual attention to. I think most people accept the traditional evaluation process as “just the way things are” and forget that this is a choice we continue to make with our budgetary priorities. “Things” could be different.

One of the worst parts of my teaching experience was grades, starting with every small missed point on a pop quiz and culminating with the worst moment of all at the end of the quarter when I tallied all the points a student had earned out of the possible 1000 and translated that number into a letter (with maybe a + or a – as demanded by the chart). This letter stood in the official record to represent the student’s work in the entire ten week class.

I must note that the grading system was developed by my supervisor and I was under contract to abide by it and implement it faithfully.

Some students, thanks to smarts, hard work and extra credit opportunites, scored over 1000 points and I could happily enter a well-deserved “A+.”

Other students barely showed up for class, were only taking the class as a requirement and could not seem to drum up enough enthusiasm to make the class or their participation in it vaguely tolerable for anyone involved. To these students I numbly gave the low grade they had earned.

But those in the middle, the C+s and Bs and every other shade of grade — it all seemed so arbitrary. A top student suffers a personal drama and the grade falls for a few weeks. A mediocre student rides on the talent of their oral exam partner.

Another student is one point in 1000 away from an A- and thus I am supposed to assign a B+, which ends up costing them in their GPA. More than once I stared at the grade book, tortured. One lousy point. If with my little pencil I change one stinking point I can single-handedly improve their lot, however infintesimally. I would recalculate, adding up totals again, but I can’t find the infernal point. I recall as I stare at the numbers one day when this student raised her hand and asked a brilliant question that allowed me to clarify a grammatical issue that many in the class had been struggling with. Surely this event warrants one point?

The temptation to fudge was huge. But I never did. It came down to the reality that we were all playing a stupid game, voluntarily, and we had to play it honestly. If I changed one point, what about that other guy who was two points away?

But boy did I cheer out loud when the numbers added up and a student made it to the higher grade by a point or two.

So random.

When I tutor or homeschool, the idea of grades, like the idea of exams, becomes absurd. I know what they are learning, I am there the instant they “get it.” I give personal, individual encouragement and feedback at every step.

Lest I be accused of bitterness due to personal failure, I will state for the record that I myself got good grades. I graduated from college summa cum laude with a GPA over 4.0. I feel like I am justified in hating the system, because though it gave me many good grades, receiving a letter or a percentage has never been satisfying. Especially not after having attended the University of California at Santa Cruz for a couple of years.

When I was there, UCSC had written evaluations in which your professor would use more than one letter to sum up how you did that quarter. In whole sentences the student would get feedback on all aspects of their work, from essays to class participation to exams. Compare receiving an “A-” to, “She writes intelligent, insightful essays demonstrating a real talent for literary analysis.” No comparison.

Though I think evaluations would be ideal, I have also tried to plot ways to de-randomize the grading process, should I ever be in a position where I must give grades but can devise the evaluation process myself. Anything I come up with, like allowing retakes or revisions, always involves giving the instructor much more work, and with classes of 20 to 40 students, the amount of time and energy required would be overwhelming.

It always comes back to the beginning point — most of the torturous, ineffectual, unjust, seemingly random systems involved in education, like grades and exams, are caused by economic factors, i.e. we are not willing to commit the money to lower class sizes. With large classes, even the most inspired and dedicated teacher is forced to mechanize the process and must, to some degree, regard the student as a car on the assembly line while the learning process is aimed at attaching the same bits of knowledge in the same manner to every chassis that moves through the classroom, regardless of their individuality.

Ideally, in a Free School, grades might be an option chosen by students heading to a university or for those who have become used to them for motivational or feedback purposes, but for the most part they would be relegated to the misty past, a nightmare to be forgotten.

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