It’s easy to grumble about grades and scores. Why did he get an A- when I did 50% more work and only got a B+? Where is the rubric? Who is making sure the teacher is grading me fairly?
There are infinite questions about the fairness of grades, and as students we’ve likely asked many of them. To answer them, however, it seems sensible to begin with the more abstract roots of grading.

Does absolute ‘fairness’ in grading even exist?

At its core, grades exist to evaluate students and thus keep track of their academic growth.

In a model distinct from that of other countries, American states have significant say in constructing their respective education systems. Federal groups may dictate certain guidelines and rules, however it is up to the states when it comes to enforcement. No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a Congressional act approved by George W. Bush in 2001, “create[s] rigorous standards for academic subjects” but only states may enforce those standards (US Dept. of Education). Similarly, the Common Core Standards, a group of guidelines to encourage critical thinking and analysis, have been adopted by 43 states. Curricula to enforce these standards are likewise determined by individual states themselves, creating even more possible interpretations.

As the levels of government descend, from federal to state to county levels, to the teachers themselves, the amount of variations of grading methods further increases.

Teachers are responsible for deciding what grade goes to whom, as well as how many students deserve a certain letter or number grade. Most teachers at M-A use a combination of written and multiple-choice tests, depending on the subject and length of test. Others evaluate their students orally or through concrete displays of skill (physical education and fine arts classes). Students are graded from A through F, with respective percentages determined by each teacher— for some, an 88% counts as an A-, while for most it is a B+. Even within the same subject, teachers may have different rubrics or standards that emphasize some skills over others, often to the consternation of students. A student taking six classes may be faced with six slightly different variants of a core grading structure.

Students rely on teachers to provide a fair and reasonable grade that properly accounts for their work. Of course, an appropriate grade and a desirable one are not always one and the same; students and teachers must therefore work together professionally to avoid disputes.

Similar nuances are present when placing two school side by side; an A in AP English at M-A differs from an A in the same class at Palo Alto High School and from an A in a rural high school in another state. Most colleges claim to view each student in their respective academic contexts, yet students still fret about such discrepancies.

With so many variations of a system that affects a significant portion of the country’s population, there is bound to be controversy and debate.

Should grades carry this much weight in our academic futures? Pressure on students from their peers, parents, and teachers to perform at a certain level has the ability to increase stress levels. M-A diplomas require certain grades and colleges take GPA’s into account when reviewing applications. Teachers are also under pressure , whether to assign a certain number of grades— grade inflation at both the high school and college level has been widely debated— or to give superfluous extra credit.

Some students point to the accountability of teachers, questioning their rubrics or grading systems. Others have requested the ability to evaluate their teachers themselves in order to provide direct feedback. Opponents to this suggestion, however, assert that this system may turn into a popularity contest or that students may grade their teacher based on a personal bias.

The picture becomes even more complex if broadened to include students’ communities. Expectations from families or social groups differ from household to household. Financial burdens may force a student to prioritize a stable home life over his grades, while another student with a single parent may be expected to graduate with a 4.8 GPA.

Ultimately, in order to yield an efficient and balanced system, it seems wise to let the sometimes overbearing presence of grades give away to the value of learning. One’s curiosity and drive to learn should be bolstered by the presence of grades rather than consumed by it.

In separate, stand-alone pieces, we’ve decided to take a closer look at several of these issues in their own right. Natalie Silverman covers the question of students’ evaluations of teachers in “Should Students Be Able to Grade Teachers?” Her opinion “Seeking a Genuine Definition of Success and Happiness” highlights the relationship between others’ interpretation of success and one’s own.

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