A student today asked me to raise their semester grade from a B+ to an A.
Before we all get fired up about entitlement, grade inflation, and lowering academic standards in American public education let me say that I did not raise the grade. This student will be ending first semester with a B+. The grade she earned. I believe that a grade of 89.5 (or .6 or .7) should be rounded up. I was fully convinced when a colleague of mine explained it in terms of significant digits.
To paraphrase him: if my syllabus says that an A is 90% then I need to stick to that. If I want to be more precise in my grading I should be more precise in my syllabus and specify 90.0% or 90.00% to earn a grade of A. Additionally there is significant subjectivity in grading and there is no way that I can be so confident in my application of standards and rubrics that I can be confident to a hundredth of a percent. As such I take other factors into account and if appropriate I am definitely willing to adjust a student’s grade.
This student definitely works hard and her request was very polite. She also included rationale to support her request of a grade change. I’m including her entire email below (direct copy, spelling and grammar issues retained, name changed):
Hi Mr. McCormick,
I wanted to talk to you about my 1st semester grade. After putting the final in, I have an 88%. I would sincerely appreciate it if you could round it up to a 90%. I know that is rounding up 2% but I have put a lot of hard work into this class and have been trying my best. This class is the only class that is bringing my gpa down and I would be really happy if this got up becuase I have been struggling to keep my grades up a lot. This grade is really important for me to stay in Honor Society as well. I have tennis outside of school every tuesday and thursday. I also have AP Bio class which is really tough too. I promise to keep my schedule neat this semester so I can get an A in this class. I can come and talk to you tommorow after school about this if that is more convinient to you as well. Again, I would sincerely appreciate it, Mr. McCormick, if you could possibly raise my grade up.
Thanks, Kid McStudent
There’s a lot to unpack in there.
I’m not offended that she asked, but I am a bit surprised at her logic. She worked hard and has a busy schedule with other tough classes, can’t I just give her a break? Given many classes I might agree that her hard work is valuable and she should be rewarded for putting in substantial effort. My class however, has some different structures in place that change the definition of “trying my best.”
Every single assignment, essay, test, and quiz in my class can be revised, rewritten, or reattempted barring the final exam. Assignments and essays in particular can be reattempted multiple times in order to show mastery. At the end of the day what’s most important to me is that students learn the skills and content I’m teaching. If it takes a couple tries, no problem. Thus in my class trying your best would include taking the opportunity to revise or rewrite assignments that were below standard. This student has not made good use of her option to retake and rewrite assignments. She’s been riding the edges of an A and a B all semester, and she didn’t do particularly well on the final which took her grade from the “probably going to round up” range to just outside of it.
The second piece of her rationale that’s interesting to me is the issue about Honor Society and her GPA. The value for her is clearly the numbers aspect of the grade as opposed to any sort of learning the grade represents. From the constitution of the National Honor Sciety the groups’ purpose is “to create enthusiasm for scholarship,… in the students of secondary schools. ” I think she’s missing the point a bit. Enthusiasm for a high GPA and enthusiasm for scholarship are different things. To me an enthusiasm for scholarship would include the interest in improving your learning for the sake of learning as opposed to trying to negotiate up a grade for the numerical value of an A over a B.
This students’ issues further convince me that a standards based assessment approach is the only reasonable course of action for solving issues of assessment. Throw out the compliance grades. Throw out the points for effort. Get rid of the idea that everyone gets a blue ribbon just for showing up. If you’ve made the choice to take more challenging classes (like AP Biology and AP World History) you should not expect to simply receive an A without demonstrating that you’ve learned the appropriate skills and content. Doing poorly on the final exam indicates that you still have something to learn.
I need to be honest with myself and my students on the purpose of my grades, and what I am measuring. If I want students to improve their writing I need to assess their skill at writing. If I’m giving students points for turning an assignment in on time I’m assessing their ability to meet a deadline. As a profession teachers are guilty of assessing many things other than learning be it attitude, effort, or prompt compliance just to name a few.
Make a rigorous, yet attainable standard. Provide the students with opportunities to master the content and skills necessary to meet those standards and assess based on those standards. As much as I may not like it, the grades my students earn have a very real impact on their college prospects. I think my policies of allowing students to repeat assignments is a good first step in improving my assessment model. If you give students opportunities to learn the skills and content, then give them opportunities to show their mastery of said skills and content there should be very little room for discussion. “I worked really hard,” doesn’t work when there are no grades for working hard. Proof of working hard should show in learning through revising, and taking advantage of those second chances.
I don’t blame my student for trying. She’s playing the game that’s been put in front of her. For motivated students, earning high grades are a very real pressure. I think there are teachers who would adjust this grade for her, and this is where I take issue. As teachers it’s our responsibility to help change the game.