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“Grading is Complicated: Ruminations of an English Teacher Educator”

My students (future secondary English teachers) have a lot of questions about grading. They wonder if effort should count. They wonder if an emergent bilingual who works dang hard on three drafts of an essay should receive the same grade as another student’s essay, which is better. They wonder if in the grading process, after looking at other student work, it is fair to go back and change a previous student’s rubric evaluation. They wonder if we need to use rubrics for everything. They wonder if rubrics are too limiting of intellectual freedom.

My students are brilliant, and they ask complex questions that don’t have definite answers.

Let’s take them one-by-one. I invite readers to push back on any of the comments. I don’t have the answers, and I am often wondering if I need to reimagine my conceptualizations of grading.

Should effort count?

I believe that effort should count. The book that we read (Wormeli’s Fair Isn’t Always Equal) argues that effort shouldn’t count. For me, that’s conceiving of grades in simplistic ways. English language arts, as a subject area, cannot be quantified. I think that multiple drafts should count. If we are to accommodate the varying needs of students in our classrooms, we need to consider effort. A student who has a learning disorder who works dang hard and produces draft after draft to improve an essay should get some credit. Not counting effort standardizes grades in ways that might be harmful to learners. I argue that we need to individualize students’ learning progress. We need to know our students, and then we can evaluate whether the paper earns the A. Does this dilute grading systems? It sure does. But are we in this field to actually help students improve their writing or reading, or are we in this field to calculate GPAs and circle the grade of an 81 on a written essay (something that can hardly be quantified)?

Let’s complicate it even more:

Emergent bilinguals. If we don’t include effort and don’t focus on students’ personal improvement in their reading and writing, wouldn’t emergent bilinguals who are just learning a new language fail repeatedly? For me, this is an easy-to-see example of why effort does need to factor into the grading process.

Rubrics

I hate them, but I also recognize their importance. I think it’s critical that students know how they are going to be evaluated. We need to show them rubrics before they start brainstorming. On the other hand, rubrics are wildly limiting on creativity and intellectual freedom. By creating rubrics, we automatically tell students exactly what they are looking for. I know that folks argue that they create rubrics that are very open. No matter how open a rubric is, it limits students’ creativity to go in a wildly different (and potentially incredible) direction. They are teacher-focused rather than student-focused. My solution to this is the provision of rubrics that are student-generated (as a whole class, most often) and as open as possible. I continually remind my students that I would excitedly invite a different approach to the assignment, and I invite them to see me if their vision seems to conflict with criteria on the rubric. The students and I collaboratively develop expectations, and it is my hope that this process will not restrict their visions.

Grading with Rubrics

A student asked the smart question—if I grade a student’s work according to a rubric and then read other students’ work and realize that I evaluated the first student’s work wrong, can I redo the rubric? I am very conflicted about this issue. If you didn’t even know how to evaluate the first student, how would they know how to earn an “A.” For me, this means that the assignment expectations weren’t clear enough. I told my students that they are welcome to go back and redo the grading process, but they might rethink how students might be more firmly aware of the assignment expectations. The solution here, in my opinion, is that students always need to be given the opportunity to revise. No summative assessment should ever be a definitive final grade, and students should always be able to revise their work to improve their reading and writing skills. An argument against this might be, “But an employer wouldn’t allow a worker to revise their writing!” My response to this is, “Classrooms aren’t businesses. Classrooms are designed to foster learning.”

What complications do you have with grading? 

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One Response to Teaching Tuesday: Grading is Complicated: Ruminations of an English Teacher Educator

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