In my view, grades as summative assessments should indicate student learning. Of course, it’s not that simple in practice. This may be anathema to say publicly, but grading is as much art as science. Think about it. Teachers can’t observe learning directly so they try to interpret signs of content knowledge, skills and habits of the mind (e.g. approaching a problem the way an economist would). In other words, grading is an attempt to read the minds of one’s students, based on observations and evidence they provide. Does a piece of student writing show understanding of the required concepts? Does it correctly analyze the situation posed or answer the prompt? Does the student’s language ability distort what the student knows?
“Objective” assessments have their own pitfalls. Does the student correctly interpret what is being asked? Is the terminology used in multiple choice questions the same as in the text, or the same as that used by the lecturer? Will the student’s mathematical ability compromise his ability to show what she knows about economics or geology or whatever subject is being assessed? Did the student blacken the oval on the answer sheet that matches the answer they selected on the test document?
Grades can be affected by numerous things that are not student learning. Was a student ill the day of the exam? Was the student upset by something going on in their lives that adversely impacted their performance on a given assignment/assessment. Had they gotten enough sleep? I had a first year student, who despite my advice, studied for the 14 hours immediately prior to an 8am final exam. About 15 minutes into the exam, he blanked and was unable to complete it. Of course, the outcome was the student’s fault, but my point is simply that his performance didn’t correctly reflect his learning in the course.
I had a colleague once who had a policy that late papers received a 50% deduction. He spelled this out explicitly on the course syllabus, so from the administrative perspective the policy was aboveboard and acceptable. The purpose of the late penalty was to induce students to submit assignments on time. One student wrote an excellent paper (the colleague told me so), but turned the paper in late (by 15 minutes). The reason for the lateness isn’t important here. The colleague awarded the student 100 points on the paper less the 50 percent deduction for a net grade of 50, an F. The grade was awarded based on the stated policy so the grade was correct in a procedural sense. But did the grade accurately affect student learning?
I had another colleague who declined to grade a student paper because the student had deposited the paper in his campus mailbox, rather than submitting it in class. The student violated the instructor’s rules; therefore, she paid the penalty.
Most of us can agree that these are extreme examples, but most of us can also probably think of less egregious examples of where failure to follow directions (stated or unstated) or other deviations from expectations resulted in grade deductions. My question is not are these deductions fair, but do they bias the grade away from measuring student learning. I think the answer is yes.
Grades are never completely objective. As teachers, we need to own that. I think the best we can do is provide our best professional judgment of how much they reflect student learning. But at the same time we should be humble about our ability to always get it right.