Sunday, August 28, 2016

Grade Within a Margin of Error

When a student "earns" a grade by accumulating 89.3% or 79.2% of the possible points, should the teacher award the higher or lower grade? Is the body of work truly the lower B+/C+, or is there a chance the student is really an A-/B- student? Ahh, the nuanced question of absolute value on grades - it's a conundrum for teachers who have a subjective component to their assessments. That disparity between letter grade demarcations is most significant in the arts and humanities, though more objective classes in the math/science world also face challenges in assessing the most accurate grade. I alwasy address this with my students in the first week of school and with their parents during Back-to-School Night. For, in my AP Lang & Comp class I usually give the class a surprise style analysis essay during the first couple days, and many students do .... well, not as well as they'd like and not as well as they will probably do by the end of the semester and the year. To that end, I only count the essay for half the normal points, and I will always consider dropping a low grade at the end of the semester for students "on the bubble." And I can't imagine why any teacher wouldn't also factor in some latitude to the idea of assessment.

The challenge of subjective grading of work like essays can be one of the most frustrating parts of the teaching field. In AP, teachers must rely on a general rubric that rates pieces of writing on a 1-9 scale. For the purpose of letter grades and GPA, teachers must turn those rubric scores into percentages. Many will put 8s and 9s in the 92%-98% range. And the scores adjust from there on down. And, overall we feel like this system is pretty accurate in assessing exemplary, competent, and inadequate performance. But what to do when a student's final grade ends up near that letter grade breaking point? Is the balanced part of the class where teachers grade objective tests enough to guarantee the letter grade is accurate? I often wonder. If a teacher regularly assigns an 82% for a low B grade (or 6 on the rubric), is there a possibility that a legit margin of error in giving a few essays an 81% or 83% instead could be the breaking point up or down for a final grade? The same question can be asked about those objective questions - which are occasionally debatable and certainly arbitrary in some of the content they expect for mastery.

I think we have to give students the benefit of the doubt more often than not. It's troubling that the art of assessment and grading can be such an inexact science. And, twenty-four years into my teaching career, I am still pondering the issue of authenticity.

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