grading English papers
Not too long ago, I attended a meeting where a lot of teachers were expressing frustration about assessment. A few people were saying they felt uncomfortable giving low grades to college students, especially those who had claimed to be “A” students in high school.
I am not sure how a student’s high school report card should impact his or her grades in a college level course. Twenty-five years ago, teachers worried a lot less about students’ feelings. They just read the papers they received and doled out the grades. They didn’t worry about crushing self-esteem or how a low grade would impact students’ grade point averages.
Teachers need to have a solid understanding of how to assess student work. In any class, assessment can be based on writing an individual paper, preparing a group presentation, class participation, attendance, homework problem sets, exams (essay, short answer, multiple choice, true/false), and so on. Alternatively, when a student performs a task rather than taking a test, it is called performance assessment. There are a zillion different types of performance based assessment.
To me, it’s actually really, really simple:
A range = Amazing work. And let’s be clear, amazing work is very rare. It means the reader can sit back and appreciate the writing because the author really understands how to play with language. The grader should only have to pick up a pen to draw little stars in the margins. When I read an “A” paper, I sometimes gasp audibly because “A” papers are that good. Parents may not like to hear it, but in reality, amazing work is very rare. For me, an “A” range paper earns anything above 90%.
B range = Very good: A “B” means I can tell the student has some solid skill in the subject area. There may be a few grammar errors or awkwardly phrased sentences, but — in general — the paper reads smoothly. Perhaps the meaning wasn’t as conveyed as fully as it might have been. But a “B” paper still shows evidence of a real understanding of the assignment and the material, as well as very good writing and thinking skills. For me, a B paper earns a grade somewhere between 80%-89%.
C range = Common. Back when I was in graduate school, we learned that C meant “Average” — and guess what? Most students are average. (Not your kids, of course. Your kids are gifted and talented.) But the reality is that students have to put in some kind of effort to move up from average. Students in “C” range often struggle generating a solid thesis. Their organization is hard to follow. Their grammar is choppy. They don’t spell-check their papers, or their confuse homonyms (words that sound the same but are spelled differently). Lots of people who are currently earning B’s should be getting C’s! There are other ways in which students reveal their average-ness. (That is not a word, but I think it should be.) Let’s face it, some folks are 100% silent participants: they just sit there taking in valuable oxygen, but they don’t really add to the dialogue. Now, that doesn’t mean the shy kid is going to get a “C,” but someone better make sure he participates aloud once in a blue moon. Because you simply cannot earn an “A” if you have never opened your mouth. It ain’t happenin’. People can earn C’s when they earn a low grade on a paper, are given an opportunity to revise, but they opt not to do so. That is, of course, a student’s prerogative. A “C” basically means the student was average in the course or made average effort. It’s okay. Not everyone has to be stellar in every subject. To me, a “C” grade ranges between 70%-79%.
D range = Deficient. It is not impossible to get a “D” in college. A student may elect to skip an assignment or two. And it’s kinda hard to recover when you have a zero averaged in with very few other grades. (Just sayin’!) Students who earn D’s often have some major deficiencies in the subject matter. In English, they may not know how to structure an essay; how to generate a thesis; how to support their thesis with quotes; how to cite their quotes properly. They usually dislike (read: hate) the subject matter and engage in a lot of avoidance behaviors. They don’t read or take notes on the assigned material. They are not interested in meeting with the instructor outside of class. They do the exact minimum amount of work necessary for them to pass with the course with a D. Students who earn D’s are not struggling to complete their papers on Saturday nights. Reading “D” papers is like stumbling around in the woods at midnight without a flashlight. Slow going. The reader has to constantly stop, as errors abound. Usually dozens. Reading a “D” range paper is toe-curling. It takes forever, so these days I have set a time limit. I can get through any 3-4 page paper in under 10 minutes, if it is written well. If I am still bumbling around after 10 minutes, I simply draw a line at the place I’ve stopped and write “D” at the top of the paper — along with the ole “See Me.” I just can’t kill myself spending 45 minutes over a paper that a student is probably just going to stuff in his bag and never look at again — even if given the opportunity to revise. Below average no matter how you slice it, either in effort or ability, a D paper ranges between a 65% and a 69%.
F = Failing. There are a lot of reasons why students fail a class at the college level (or any level, really). Sometimes a student doesn’t have the basic skills required to pass the course: plain and simple. Sometimes, a failing student has solid skills but is trying to make a statement to his or her parents: “I don’t want to be here, but you made me enroll anyway, so now I’ll just fail at everything and waste your money.” Given a little bit of freedom for the first time, sometimes students blow it. Instead of studying, they party. They come to class hungover. They sleep in class. They miss classes (so they can catch up on their sleep). While living away from parents for the first time allows the vast majority of students the freedom to thrive, some don’t.
Sometimes students have some serious interference going on in their lives. Some people are wrestling with sexual orientation; some get involved with drugs and alcohol; some good-girls go wild, some bad boys get worse. Some people experience horrible depression — they face that void which taunts them, tells them to give up on everything. Some students bring their demons to campus. Some have been sexually, emotionally or physically abused and don’t know where to turn. Some have eating disorders. Some cut themselves. It is very hard to focus on comma rules when you just found out you tested HIV positive. So real life gets in the way, yes.
I tell failing students that their failure in a course, in any given semester, at any given time does not mean that they could not succeed at another time. It just means that, at that moment in their lives, for whatever reason, it didn’t work.
For the record: It is just as hard to fail my class as it is to get an A. But I will fail people. And I will also award A’s when they are earned.
Grading is not personal.
Why do some teachers have to make it so hard?