In my system of contract grading, my students write a final reflection at the end of the semester discussing their learning in the class. As part of this reflection, they are welcome to make a case for what grade they earned, although it’s wonderful to see how many choose not to. So many students write something like, “I will respect whatever grade you give me,” which belies the common view that students care about grades and nothing else.

This semester, one student — I’ll call him Yusef — argued that he had earned an A in the class. He wrote in his final reflection:

I have showed up to every single class, done every single assignment without using a late pass, and I believe I have also gone above and beyond in every assignment. I have done all of my assignments with care and understanding and have put all of my effort into them. I have read and annotated every text (even in my other classes) and have made revisions to all of my essays. I have learned the art of being able to think critically, being able to understand other people’s views, to see where this person is coming from and to respond. I would like to say that I have even taken a risk in my writing. I am used to writing the five-paragraph essay but I took a risk and expanded on that and I have come out victorious and even wrote some distinguished essays.

I’m embarrassed to say that I hadn’t even considered Yusef as an A student before I read this. But why not? Everything he wrote in his final reflection was true.

And it made me wonder: How much of our assigning of grades involves comparing our students against each other? Because when I thought of Yusef, I couldn’t help but think of another student, Alina.

Alina did the same hard work as Yusef, but she started the course with more fluency in writing than Yusef. Clearly, Alina had grown up reading. Her writing was more polished, more correct. She was more confident than Yusef, and thus spoke up in class more. She was what I had in mind when I thought of “an A student.”

Yusef’s letter had me waking up in the middle of the night, pondering my students’ grades. This is the downside to throwing out traditional grading: When we abandon letters and numbers, it exposes just how subjective grading is. Numerical grades are subjective, too, but they hide behind a mask of objectivity.

So I made a decision. When I assigned final grades this semester, I was not going to compare Yusef and Alina. I was not going to compare any of my students against the “ideal A student.” It seems to me that comparison only serves to glorify certain types of people and undervalue everyone else. This is why, a few years ago, I stopped giving my students model essays to review. How could it benefit them to see an “ideal” essay held up as an example, when they most likely could or would never write such an essay? I thought it was better to help students write their best essay. My students read essays from their classmates, which exposes them to other ways of writing, but they never see an “A” essay held up as a shining goal.

I never wanted to suggest to my students that there was only one way of writing a strong essay — and so I also don’t want to suggest that there is only one way to be an A student. When I think of Yusef, I ask myself, “Did he show evidence of deep learning and progress? Was there more that I wished he had done?” The answer to those questions is clear. Ironically, the students that we think of as “A” students are the ones who sometimes grow the least, coasting on the abilities they had coming into the class.

How much of a student’s final grade should be based on effort and improvement, and how much should be based on achievement? I’m not sure I know. This question will be with me this year, and next year, and the next. But I do feel some peace, having made the decision to judge my students on their own terms.

Jennifer Hurley has taught literature, composition, and critical thinking at Ohlone College since 2001. See more of her writing at www.professorhurley.com.

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