This is what students call “Early Decision week,” and college counseling offices are quietly freaking out as they collate the last bits of paperwork to send off to colleges in support of students’ applications.
When I directed such an office, the bane of my existence at this time of year were teachers who had left the writing of recommendations until the last minute. We had one egregious laggard, and it was often not until the afternoon of the actual due date that the letters would appear—sensitive and beautifully written, almost good enough to merit instant forgiveness for the stress that had been caused.
This same person had made life hard when I was academic dean, too, because they were (I’m trying to protect identity here) always horrendously behindhand in submitting grades and narrative comments. When they finally arrived, the comments were always excellent, thoughtful and reflecting a deep understanding of the students.
This teacher was also notoriously slow in grading and returning work, which was problematic throughout their tenure. I had occasion to poke and prod, as did the department head, the division head, and the assistant head of school. But the habits persisted.
In a couple of conversations—I was trying to be supportive—I made some progress, I thought, toward the bottom of the issue. Official deadlines for institutional paperwork are law for me, psychologically, but I, too, was a slow grader of essays and projects. I know all the arguments for speed in this process, and I buy most of them, but I know what hung me up sometimes and what almost paralyzed my slow-moving colleague.
Not to put too fine a point on it, the process of grading in traditional frameworks—A-B-C or 0–100 or 4.0—feels just awful to many of us. Even with the most prolific addition of comments, notes, and other kinds of feedback, the final act of adding a grade to a piece of student work, especially when the work must necessarily be with a degree of subjectivity, feels rather shy on justice. The grade feels like a judgment on the kid as well as the work, and many of us are wary of trying to judge the degree of real effort and thought that has gone into a piece of work. Sometimes it’s easy to tell, but all too often it’s not, and the grade, even in schools that have “effort grades” or other systems for stripping out the effort factor, is at best a crude approximation of something that is extremely difficult to apprehend.
Rubrics were my salvation, kind of. They at least provided a framework that helped me make broad-stroke evaluations of work and even tie those to something resembling meaningful feedback, but they weren’t perfect, and I was always aware that a few earnest students were writing as much to fit the rubric as they were to learn.
Many teachers find traditional grading distasteful, uncomfortable, and even personally wrong—the act of doing something that breeds cynicism and stands as a barrier between the work we are doing and the most sublime outcomes we could hope for. It makes us hypocrites when we measure ourselves against our ideals, and it makes many of our students into fearful creatures little better than Pavlov’s dogs.
The slow graders, I think, are and have always been the canaries in our coal mines. They’re telling us something by their struggles. Sure, some are challenged by time management and I suppose a few are just undermotivated, but their aversive response to the task of assigning traditional grades to each piece of student work is a message that these systems don’t work well, don’t really do what we want to pretend that they do.
Spend time with a group of deeply engaged educators, as I did last week at the Independent Curriculum Group’s inaugural Retreat for Academic Leaders. Ask them how much they like the grading system that they and their colleagues must use, that their students must experience. You’ll not find many votes of approval for our current methods.
There are alternatives. Some schools don’t give grades at all, and some have worked toward methods and language that describe student learning and provide excellent feedback without resorting to familiar numbers or letters. There are portfolios. Independent schools have missions and values that could guide them toward their own systems.
We blame the colleges for much of the standardization in the work we do; they’ll expect to see the familiar, we tell ourselves. I hate to say it, but I think that schools ought thoughtfully and deliberately to test that proposition. After all, kids already get into college from schools that use alternative reporting systems and idiosyncratic transcripts. Maybe we need to find the courage of our deepest convictions here and see what we can do. Maybe we’ll inspire a small hiring boom in college admission offices if it takes longer to read a file, and maybe we’ll help inspire a whole new approach to that process—but that is for another day.
But I am happy to go on record as having enormous appreciation for my tardy colleague, as crazy as that tardiness may have driven me. I think I knew the depth of the anxiety that drove their aversion to a process that is, let’s face it, pretty flawed on a good day and on others downright icky. That teacher was the canary in our mine shaft, and I think schools need to look for their own canaries and think about how to respond to the message they are sending.