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Topic: Education teacher reflective narrative essay How Equitable is Grading?


Case Study # 3
Preview the document and reflect on some of the issues facing this teacher. Did you identify with her or do you have a different viewpoint? What is your philosophy regarding grading?

Write a reflective narrative about what you took away after reading this article.
How Equitable is Grading?
Sasha Alsop
Jeff was in my freshman English class last year. He was one of the kindest kids in the class. He shared a deep empathy with students who struggled socially or academically. His friends tended to be the students who were on the lower end of the social totem pole and yet he easily moved within the other social circles. He was well-liked by everyone. Interestingly, he was one of the few minority students in the school. Part Japanese, part Passamaquoddy Indian, and part Caucasian he had a diverse background for the almost all-white high school in which I teach. He would usually come into class with energy and enthusiasm and yet he was a student who had an IEP. He had trouble organizing information and struggled to pay attention. In class he would automatically say “I don’t know” as an answer to any question and he would often need prodding and one-on-one time to finish his classwork. Still, he would always focus his attention and concentration when asked.
Jeff is a sophomore this year and is once again in my English class. He has struggled from the beginning. Early in the year we began a research unit that would focus on a controversial topic such as the death penalty, or abortion. The students could pick any topic they liked and the final assessment was to be a persuasive essay in which they would take one position while examining both sides of the argument. Jeff could not find any topic that motivated him. He was stuck. We finally found a topic that he agreed to but he still seemed to flounder. I scaffolded for the class by having them fill out graphic organizers to help them organize their notes. I had the librarian come in and talk about valid and reliable sources.
We did all of the work in class so that I would be available to answer clarifying questions. Yet, when it came time to write the paper, Jeff seemed at a loss. He was obsessed with the word count. He thought that if he just got the amount of words needed on the page then he would be okay. As a result, there was no semblance of organization nor coherence to his ideas. He had no Works Cited page nor in-text citations. He kept repeating the same idea over and over again. I made the obvious and necessary comments on his rough draft and yet when he turned in the final paper there were no corrections made. When I explained that I saw no improvement, Jeff simply said, “yeah.” There was no disagreement, no argument–nothing. Jeff had simply turned off.

How do you create assessments that are engaging for all students? I like research papers because it gives my students a way to naturally differentiate according to their interests. They choose the topics that they like. They may not like the fact that they have to cite their sources or elaborate on their thoughts, but at least they are focusing their attention on a subject they care about. This was not the case for Jeff. He had chosen a subject seemingly at random, and he felt no real attachment to it.
What do you do if a kid is beyond reaching? How do you proceed? I was at a loss. How did I scaffold him when he had already given up? If there is no engagement in the first place, then the scaffolding itself is beyond the student’s needs.

Since Jeff has an IEP, he has a support system in the Resource Room. I emailed the paper to Tony, the coordinator for the Resource Room, and asked him to look over the paper with Jeff. Jeff seems to enjoy Tony’s presence and connects with him. I figured that a one-on-one session with Tony would help produce a paper that had, at the very least, the beginnings of a final copy. Unfortunately, the paper that I got back was unchanged. Tony was busy and had asked one of the Ed Techs to sit with Jeff and go over the paper. The paper had some grammatical changes but no structural ones. It was the same paper but just dressed up. I had a conversation with Tony about the paper. I explained that the paper seemed unchanged. Tony explained that the paper is what it is and that his advice was to grade the paper based on Jeff’s performance–in other words, to grade his paper based on how much he had improved, not according to the rubric. Good point, I thought. Why not treat each student independently? That would make much more sense and would give Jeff a better experience.

What is the point of grades? To make a comparison? What is the point of a comparison between two kids who are in completely different situations? Jeff was struggling because of a host of factors that had little to do with his competency in English class. Why compare him to Michelle Calvin, who had a strong, supportive family environment, easy social skills, and to whom reading and writing came very easily?

Differentiation is important because engagement is important. I differentiate in my classroom to a point where my students are engaged and working at appropriate levels to their developmental needs. A grade forces me to make inappropriate comparisons and focus on a student’s weaknesses, whereas a written comment would allow me to address both their strengths and their weaknesses.

Later that day I had a conversation with our guidance counselor about the issue. She told me that grading Jeff according to his own performance sets up a difficult dynamic in the school. The school engages in class rank – meaning that each student is ranked according to their academic standing. The class rank affects them come senior year, when colleges use it to determine financial aid and scholarships. According to our guidance counselor, the school was now in a situation where the #4 ranked senior had worked very hard but didn’t have the same academic skills as the #5 student. The #4 student was well-liked by the teachers and other students but, in her opinion, didn’t deserve the higher spot. The #5 student was now being declined for necessary scholarships and financial aid. The teachers’ “bias” in grading the #4 student more easily had hurt the future of the #5 student. If every teacher were to grade according to personal performance of every student then we would once again be in the same situation as the #4 and #5 students of the now senior class. In other words, her position was that we should grade according to the rubric, not personal performance.

Grades are important. There is no way around the issue. And while my students may act like they don’t care, they do notice the grades that are given them. If a student repeatedly earns failing grades, it can become an easy justification for giving up. “I’m just no good at this,” they tell themselves. By giving Jeff a failing grade, would I simply be contributing to his decline as a student? Would I reinforce his spiral downward? And what was the point of the grade, when comments might have so much better expressed his successes and failures, and his areas of improvement? With comments, I can so much better describe the nuances of a student’s learning–in depth, with the care and accuracy that a numerical grade does not afford. And yet that is how our system is set up. I’m asked to rank and quantify my students.

Jeff’s parents are quite involved in his life. I emailed his father about the paper. Mr. Weaver emailed me back saying that he thought Tony was handling the matter. I felt boxed in. There was nothing left to do but grade the paper according to the rubric. With reluctance, I gave Jeff a 23. He had met the word count but nothing else. Jeff was devastated. He thought he had tried hard on the paper. Why hadn’t he at least passed?
Why do we have grades? To evaluate? To say that compared to student A, student B is more adept at grammar. But why base the comparison in a numerical grade. School is meant to prepare students for the “real world” and yet in the real world, how often do we receive a numerical grade? In an evaluation, a supervisor would rarely say “compared to your co-worker, you rate lower.” No, they would talk about your strengths and the things that you need to do to improve.

For our students, every failing grade offers another point of comparison–it reinforces that they have rated lower than their classmates. If the point is to motivate for improvement, then wouldn’t it make sense to start with the strengths and move on to the weaknesses? To frame it in such a way that the student knows where to move on to? How does a grade accomplish that?

Jeff’s demeanor in class became more disconnected and withdrawn. He seemed to struggle more and more as the days went on. He started having more and more absences. I felt horrible because I thought his grade in the class was encouraging these absences. I called home. His mother told me that not only was he struggling in all of his classes but that students were starting to call him names about his different ethnic backgrounds. While the students seemed to be joking, Jeff, understandably, felt uncomfortable. When he asked them to stop, they continued their taunting. It became evident: Jeff was beginning to give up.

How was Jeff’s situation equitable? An equitable determination would have recognized the pain and difficulty of his situation–the taunting, the struggle with concentration, the continuing failing grades. Instead the grade of 23 ignored all of it. A comment could have at least acknowledged the pain. I might have said, “I realize that Jeff has been having a tough time in school and that he is going through a painful period. He worked hard in class and met the requirement of the word count. Jeff has a great sense of word choice but he still struggles with the basic tenets of a research paper. He struggles with in-text citations and the organizational challenges of writing a paper. I know that Jeff has the intelligence and ability to reach this standard and I also realize that there are external factors at play. Let me know what I can do to support him and his abilities during this difficult time.” That would have been so much more helpful than a mere grade. As it was, I did write a comment for Jeff, but did he read beyond the number 23? Why would he, when a grade supposedly tells the whole story?

Jeff is still struggling. He continues to show up for classes but now he frequently closes his eyes and I have to continually ask him to “keep his head up and eyes open.” I chose to teach the book, A Diary of A Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, in hopes that he would be able to identify with the main character – an Indian from a reservation who is continuously taunted – and while he laughed and seemed engaged in most parts, he was still withdrawn. Any time I asked him to write he would sit blankly in his chair and offer his familiar, “I don’t know.”

I chose to do a fishbowl discussion for the final assessment. I think that speaking and listening in a deep and meaningful way are important skills and I wanted to give my students a break from the usual reading assignments followed by writing assessments. I thought that Jeff might engage in a discussion, more than a writing task. He could choose which questions to enter into the fishbowl, and he knew the material. Surprisingly, Jeff flailed. He entered the minimum amount of times and simply closed his eyes when others were in the fishbowl. He had checked out.

School is supposed to be a place of motivated learning — a place where students are meant to strive for ideals. And yet, Jeff is not unusual in his disengagement; I have had a number of students who, like him, have opted to check out. Each situation is different, and each kid needs a response that is differentiated, supportive, and yet addresses their particular needs. Grades, by their very nature, are inequitable because they limit a student to a number that is based only in comparison. Jeff’s intelligence and ability is equal to much more than a 23. If our school system were able to acknowledge the nuances of a student’s intelligence and situation then it would be a much more equitable place to learn.


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