Monday, May 18, 2009

What does an “A” really mean?

By Tamara Jones

ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

An “A”?!?

The cry of outrage echoed throughout the office. One of my co-workers, Colleen, who is currently completing her degree online had received her final grades. Ironically, Colleen’s response was not prompted by the fact that her grades weren’t high enough; she was angry because she felt that her “A”s were unearned.

As a teacher, I was a bit surprised by her reaction. I am sure every teacher who is in the position of having to issue final grades has had at least one tearful student in his/her office trying to negotiate a better grade. In all of my years of teaching in an IEP, I have never been approached by a student who wanted a lower grade.

What does an “A” really mean?


This situation and Colleen’s cry of outrage has caused me to reflect on my own grading practices and that of other teachers in my former program. (In my current situation, I do not have to submit grades.) In a grammar class, there might be little room for subjectivity when it comes to grading; students either know it or they don’t. However, in other classes where subjectivity dominates the grading process, how many “A”s had I given out, and was I really being fair to my students?


In retrospect, I probably wasn’t too generous, but I was not overly tough, either. As I reviewed my old grade books, I saw that I tended to give “A”s to the top 10% to 20% of students. The majority of my students received Bs, several in each class got Cs, and students appeared to have to really have put forth an effort to not fail my classes, as few did.


But they tried so hard!


One of the dangers instructors of subjects such as conversation and writing face is that we may want to reward our students for their effort rather than have the grade reflect the finished product. As education moves increasingly online, teachers may want to give students grades for simply posting comments rather than assessing the quality of the comments. This bothers me for the same reasons that it bothered Colleen to get an “A” for what she felt was merely average work. While I don’t want to discourage students’ efforts, I have come to believe that it diminishes the value of an “A” when any student who turns in the work is eligible for it. It takes away from the accomplishments of those students who have truly done superior work.


Grades for the real world?

I think that looking at my grade books with a more critical eye might cause me to think twice about the grades I assign in the future. I want students to be proud of the “A”s they achieve in my class.

However, if I had once believed that I would be better preparing my students to face the tough mainstream college and university professors they will face once they leave the nest of the IEP, I was kidding myself. In North America, instructors are constantly complaining about the inflated grades students have come to expect, students are upset when they are not rewarded for showing up to class, and other students, like my co-worker Colleen, are increasingly disillusioned about what an “A” actually represents.

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