When is a grade a bagel?

In one of my favorite moments in the TV series The West Wing, politico Josh Lyman winces when a member of the president’s staff uses the word “recession”:

Larry: “If the economy is heading into a recession–”
Josh: “No, no, no. We don’t ever use that word around here.”
Ed: “What word? Recession? …What should we call it then?”
Josh: “I don’t care. Call it a boat show or a beer garden or a bagel.”
Larry: “So if it is a… bagel, the Fed thinks it’s gonna be a mild bagel.”

If you work in the West Wing, then calling an economic downturn a recession makes it a recession (once repeated on cable news, Twitter, and around the proverbial water cooler). On the other hand, if the average English teacher, say, reads in the Delaware News Journal that the stock market has fallen and declares to his two young children at the breakfast table that the US is in a recession … nothing happens. The president’s economic advisors’ utterances have illocutionary force: they make something so by speaking it into existence, just as a licensed official alone can declare two people married.

So what does this have to do with grades?

I seem to be going through a series of posts on stuff which makes me uncomfortable at work, and nothing makes me squirm in my seat more than hearing grades described as having absolute value. “That’s not an A paper.” “He only got a 79 in grammar.” “You’re not ready for the next level because you got a C- in this class.”

Now let me be clear: I am far from an expert on assessment. To be honest, I don’t really like assessment. I like teaching. I’m happy to read students’ papers and listen to their recordings and presentations. I enjoy giving constructive feedback and seeing it taken up. But I don’t like grading. I know I need to assign grades for institutional and affective reasons — my job requires it, and I learned the hard way that students get really frustrated if you defer grades until the end of the session in lieu of extensive feedback and opportunities for revision! I can also see that grades have some value in the academy and beyond in terms of differentiating students’ performance.

But I don’t believe that grades mean anything in themselves.

In my program, a score of 70% is a C-, which isn’t very good, and in some cases will hold a student back. When I was at university in England, a score of 70 was a first, which is very good indeed. In France, grades are given out of 20, and you should be pretty pleased with 16/20, a score that would earn you a modest B- in my class and prevent you from matriculating as a graduate student. At one institution where I worked, course grades were given on the GPA scale of 1 to 4, with 2.5 representing a pass. I could go on.

Grades are arbitrary. Cut scores (the score that differentiates one grade or band from the next) only have local meaning. Changing the passing grade from C- to C+ doesn’t make a course harder: it just changes the way we calibrate our grades. In other words, you can call any given performance an A, a B, or a bagel. But if you’re the teacher, calling it an A makes it an A, at which point the grade can have lasting consequences. We can and do have lengthy, heated discussions about whether to set the passing grade at C-, C, C+, B, or B+ (all of which are considered “passing” in different places in our program). And we dutifully set up our electronic grade books — or pull out the abacus — to average our grades, report them as percentages in the database, and seal our students’ fates.

We could just as easily report our grades as bagel, boat show, or beer garden as long as — and here’s the important bit — we all agree what those terms mean. For example, a bagel means you haven’t met the goals for the course, a boat show is good enough, and a beer garden is always a welcome sight.

The problem with using A, B, C, or their percentage equivalents, is that they quickly become reified, or set in stone. A student whose grade is C becomes a C student, as if the grade defined them for eternity. A piece writing that’s OK but not stellar is a B paper, as if the grade itself were a property of the writing. Get two questions wrong out of 10 on a quiz, and your grade is 80%, or B-. But which questions did the student get wrong? Which did they get right? Does the learning outcome require complete mastery of every question, or only certain ones? What different skills and proficiencies does that scrawled C at the end of the student’s assignment hide? What does a percentage grade on a writing task mean — what is 80% of a research paper? If a student doesn’t turn in their homework, and 0 or 50% is recorded in the gradebook, does that mean the grade is more a punishment than a measurement? And is it meaningful to calculate an arithmetic average of different types of marks: what logically is the average of a summary, a case study, and a report?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but I worry about them every time I stare at the neat tables of numbers that my grading software spits out on a day like today at the end of a session. Ultimately, grades are speech acts: they make something happen by dint of the power invested in the teacher. A student moves on or is retained. They receive credit or they don’t. Their GPA qualifies them to major in business, or it doesn’t. They are required to take one class or another. They receive tuition reimbursement, or they don’t. They are eligible for an award, or they aren’t. I just don’t like seeing these decisions taken solely on the basis of grades that I think are often as arbitrary as calling a recession a bagel.

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor of ESL and materials developer in Delaware, in the United States.

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