Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Grade Inflation or Lots of Invested Clients?

The semester is now officially wrapped up, and I've sent in all my grades. Grades, as many of you probably know by now, are the bane of my existence. I hate giving them. Sometimes, I'm not even sure I know how to do  it. Evaluating writing is so subjective, even when you try to be consistent and objective. So this post is kind of a -- in the words of one of my fabulous students -- "am I doing this right?" sort of thing.

I've traded out the standard system of grading each paper for a 50/50 contract/portfolio grading method. The contract grade is based on participation, completion of blogs and small writing assignments, and turning in drafts of major assignments. Everything must be done on-time and according to assignment criteria in order to be given full credit. Anything turned in after the cut-off date gets no credit. The portfolio is grading according to the department standards for A, B, C, D, or F. The thing is when you give students a chance to revise their drafts 2-3 times, then learn more about writing, then revise those pieces for a portfolio, if they're doing their work, odds are pretty good that they will produce some effective writing. If they aren't doing their work, then they probably are going to be turning in their best writing in their portfolios, so they will wind up with mediocre grades (these are usually my C/D/F students). However, I find that most students buy into this philosophy. They put in the time and effort, they read and think about the comments, and they participate in class. This means that I end up with a lot of "good" grades.

I've noted that for most of my courses, the majority of final grades fall between A and B-. I give a few Cs, rarely give Ds, and only a handful of Fs, typically to those students who fail to turn in major assignments or the portfolio or have terrible attendance (as all of the universities where I have taught had strict school-dictated attendance policies). I happen to think my students earn their grades, but when I hear others talk about their grading, I start to wonder if I'm committing "grade inflation." Or do I manage to create a clientele who are genuinely invested? I use these terms in particular because I believe big business is directly related to the reason that we grade in the first place.

I have obviously felt challenged by other grading methods. At one university where I work, the grading system is very strict. The department attempts to calibrate instructors, and they also advise them that Cs are average. Many students wind up with Cs, Ds, and Fs on their papers, which are each graded, and then two are submitted for a final portfolio, which is graded separately. The department also encourages more of a bell curve. One shouldn't give too many As, or even Bs. If the average of the class is too high or too low in comparison to others, the department makes sure that instructor is aware.

There are other methods of which I am aware, as well. For instance, while I use a rubric or, at the very least, a set of expectations, and grade my students in accordance with those standards, there are instructors who grade students against each other. The "excellent" work gets As and the worst of the work gets Fs. This, again, results in more of a curve.

My philosophy is that if a student does her or his work, and it meets the criteria, the work should be awarded the grade deserved. Instructors shouldn't feel pressured to meet some department average (what if you have awesome students in your course or ones that were simply unprepared for college and have more work to do?). I also believe that students find this bell curve system of grading discouraging and make getting the grade the sole reason for doing work and revising. They aren't invested in the work, but they are invested in getting the grade. This also seems to lead some students to feel that they have invested in an education in a way that entitles them to high marks without any real learning or effort (I paid $50,000 to go here, so you should be giving me an A so I can get a good job). On the other hand, As and Bs might very well help students land good jobs; however, if everyone graded like me, ruin the prestige of As and Bs.

So I have to wonder, is my system faulty? Are grades meant to represent rank? Should I be thinking of grades as a levels of achievement (excellence to unprepared?) rather than a point system? Or should I continue working on creating an "invested clientele"?