Rethinking Grades, Part 1

During this week of unexpected time off due to snow days, I found myself thinking about grades. This time of the semester, faculty can submit early warnings, especially as we see which students are trending toward unsatisfactory performance or risking failure due to attendance. For students, the wakeup call comes now. I hope they will use the two weeks before spring break to refocus and recommit. The time off also gave me time to read two pieces juxtaposed this week, Chronicle Vitae‘s “Dear Student, No, I Won’t Change the Grade you Deserve” and “College Grade Inflation Means B is the New C+,” Allison Kite’s report for the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire republished in the Commercial Appeal.

As a professor, I feel solidarity with the professors and instructors quoted in the Chronicle Vitae piece. Grading presents the most challenging and most frustrating part of my job. In first-year writing courses, some students face a steep incline to adjust to college expectations. For work that might be satisfactory and meet an assignments minimal guidelines in addressing its purpose, students will receive grades and expect A-level grades for completing the assignment. In some cases, like the professors cited in both the Vitae and Kite pieces, I agree that student demands for better grades can be tied to feelings of academic entitlement. However, I also want to steer away from a belief that only students are at fault. Seeing the ways students in grades as early as kindergarten and first grade are prepared for and measured by high-stakes testing makes me realize that we have conditioned students from a young age to see their grades and test scores as measurements of their potential and worth. Moreover, state and university-level financial aid policies and scholarship programs often tie rigorous grade requirements to renewal of scholarships and grants. Students often find themselves in a position where satisfactory isn’t satisfactory enough. For universities–public and private–that are increasingly reliant on tuition, the pressure to retain students is also real.

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