A little vacation time allows me to plan a decent lesson for the first day back, liberates me to surf the Internet and find some cool resources, and gives me the energy to ruminate on the Bigger Questions facing education. In the Washington Post’s “Grading Disparities Peeve Parents: With No Baseline among Districts, Some Say Students Suffer,” Jay Mathews writes about something I don’t often hear discussed. His article focuses on the different grading standards between two school districts that are only miles from each other. One school district states that an A must be from 94 to 100 while the other says an A begins at 90; additionally, the two districts weight AP and IB courses differently in students’ averages. Mathews reports, “Standards for grading in the two counties, including bonus point calculations, are so out of sync that it appears possible for a Fairfax student to earn a 3.5 grade-point average for the same work that gets a Montgomery student a 4.6 GPA.” Fairfax parents fear this puts their children at a disadvantage for merit-based college scholarships.
When I first thought about it, I decided it wouldn’t make much difference whether an A needed to be a 90 or a 94. I’m an English teacher; I don’t give many objective, multiple-choice, three-points off for that assessments. When I read students’ writing, I decide whether the writing is A work, and then I assign the appropriate number. I use rubrics, and overall, I’d describe my grading as holistic. Then, I thought about the disparity between my grading an essay as an A versus the other members of my department. We norm for the five paragraph essay, sharing a state rubric and finding anchor papers together. The research essay, though, is a different kettle of fish. We have some shared core elements: students must use third person, at least five sources, and MLA format. After those fairly objective criteria, all bets are off. Is the student’s thesis clear? Is the argument logical? Are quotations embedded well? Did the student plagiarize? How much off for formatting errors? Spelling? I’d like to think we’d all fail the same essays, but I’m really uncertain we’d give the same essays A grades. I have a couple friends with whom I discuss grading often and at length. We read papers for each other to provide perspective on tricky issues. However, there are a dozen other people in my department with whom I don’t talk about this issue at all. Partly, we don’t talk about it because I think we already expect to disagree.
What’s going on in your schools? Do you and your colleagues grade together often or at all? Is there a clear model for an A assignment in your department? Do parents, students, and the guidance department know exactly who to take for the easy A?