Grades: determination, deliberation, distribution

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Lauren Ho, Staff Writer

“People at this school are neurotic about their grades,” Annie Wallach (12) said. 

Behind this “neurotic” culture of grades are several systems set in place by administrators and teachers to ensure that students receive the grade they deserve. Individual teachers as well as departments take into consideration many different elements, such as participation, usage of different grading systems, distribution of grades, and class averages. The school spends time focusing on how to grade most effectively, as grades can impact the motivation of students, competition between students, and college admissions.

Depending on the department and course, teachers implement different grading systems. According to the Family Handbook, “The assessment of student work and the assignment of grades is a responsibility entrusted to the Horace Mann faculty. Faculty members endeavor to be fair and consistent in their assessment of student work and to provide students with sufficient opportunities to demonstrate learning and progress.”

In the World Languages Department, grades are based on a variety of different components that each test a different skill, such as speaking, writing, or reading comprehension. Upper Division (UD) Dean of Students Michael Dalo’s Spanish students’ semester grades consist of several components, such as quizzes and tests, oral presentations, group projects, homework, and class participation.

Likewise, in physics, students are also graded on multiple components such as tests, weekly quizzes, lab reports, and a project, science teacher George Epstein said. “It gives students an opportunity to flex different muscles than purely their ‘assessment’ muscles.”

When Wallach took physics, tests were worth only 50% of the semester grade, which encouraged her to work harder in other aspects of the class, she said.

The only class out of the five core subjects that is automatically pass/fail is the first quarter of ninth grade English. This quarter grants students the ability to take both creative and intellectual risks, English teacher Stanley Lau said. 

“Some of the things I read are just phenomenal, and some of the things I read show promise but need additional work, which is fine because they can try again,” Lau said. “Overall, I have found that students usually work hard during the ungraded period, despite it being pass/fail, which reflects on the culture of the school.”

In the first quarter of ninth grade English, Corey Brooks (11) was able to smoothly transition from middle school to high school because he felt less pressure to perform well with the pass/fail grading system, and he appreciated that he had that opportunity because it made him more excited to participate in English classes, he said.

Many of English teacher Jennifer Little’s upperclassmen advisees express their gratitude for the pass/fail quarter because it took pressure off of them and allowed them to improve their writing skills without the worry of performing poorly, she said.

The one downside to having this pass/fail period is that the first semester grade for English 9 students only consists of the second quarter of that semester, which may not include many assessments, so if a student performs poorly on one, it will factor heavily into their first semester grade, Dean of UD and English teacher Dr. Jessica Levenstein said.

Individual teachers must be inventive and experiment to find what works best for their students, Little said. For example, in all of Little’s senior writing electives, she has a component of the class that is self-evaluated. Little consults students after the self-evaluation and maintains the right to raise or lower their grade, but she has found that — for the most part — students give themselves the grade they deserve, likely because students are honest. She still has the final say over what grade the student will receive, she said.

One subject on which teachers often disagree is participation. Levenstein does not have a participation grade because she hopes to encourage an atmosphere in her class that invites participation, she said. “My personal concern is that a participation grade could give extroverts an advantage over introverts,” Levenstein said. “Some students learn more quietly than others, and I didn’t want to award points off of a personality trait.”

The author of Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms, Joe Feldman, will visit the school at the end of March to discuss equitable grading. In an interview with Feldman conducted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, he said “[A big problem] with including behavior in the grade for things like participation is that often the way that teachers interpret student behaviors are through a culturally specific lens.” 

This opens the teacher up to their own implicit bias, which is concerning because grades should be purely objective, Feldman said. Levenstein, who read Grading for Equity, agrees with Feldman’s rationale.

Epstein also does not use a participation grade because students learn and process at different rates and in different ways, he said. While some students may know the answers to every question in class, other students need to practice with the material before they fully understand the concepts.

On the other hand, Wallenfang said participation is an essential part of his class. “At the same time, I acknowledge that it is a subjective grade with the potential for unintentional biases to creep in, which is why I am hesitant to make the participation grade [worth] more than 5 percent.”

Wallach, who always has been extroverted in class, said participation should be counted. Students who may not feel comfortable may participate in other ways, such as meeting with their teachers and emailing them questions, she said.

Lau uses a “classroom citizenship” grade, which measures the degree to which a student is contributing to a positive learning environment, he said.

History teacher Barry Bienstock also does not have a participation grade in his grading system, but if there is a student between two grades, he will use their participation to raise or lower their grade depending on whether their participation is constructive or not, he said.

Wallenfang, Levenstein, and Dalo set the grading policies of the UD, Wallenfang said. Wallenfang has advocated for allowing flexibility between using the 10-point scale, percentages, and letter grades as the Dean of Faculty.

In English and history classes, most assessments are papers, so letter grades are easier to use, but in classes where there are assessments such as tests and quizzes, teachers vary between using the 10-point scale and percentages, Dalo said. 

Once every year, the English Department engages in “group grading,” where every teacher reads the same essay — without the student’s name on it — to calibrate their grading, Little said. 

English Department Chair Vernon Wilson typically chooses papers for group grading, English teacher Jennifer Little said. The paper will typically be one from a previous year’s class. The papers that are chosen are average relative to the class, because the English Department wants to calibrate how to grade  papers in the middle, Little said.

“Through experience, while it’s easy to see when a paper is strong, compelling, and persuasive, how it exactly translates into a B+ or A-, for example, isn’t always so clear cut,” Lau said.

During the group grading, teachers also leave copious comments on the essay. They then discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the paper. “We all focus on similar things like close reading and argumentation, but the way that people express those might be slightly different,” Little said.

The results of group grading are typically within one third of a letter grade, Little said. “If the majority of teachers assign the paper a B+, some might give it an A- or a high B.” 

Other departments also use similar practices to make sure that assessments are fair. For example, the teachers who teach AP Biology usually share tests that they plan to give to students to ensure that the assessments are of the appropriate length and difficulty, Wallenfang said. 

In addition to conversations among faculty members throughout the school year, new teachers have both a department chair as well as a faculty mentor within their department so that they can gain an idea of the expectations for grading.

Department chairs often discuss equitable grading during their weekly chair meetings, and these conversations will likely be expanded as the faculty discusses the book Grading for Equity, which they read over the summer, Wallenfang said. 

Feldman’s visit to the school will kick off the beginning of more formal and official discussions about equitable grading, Wallenfang said.

“Equitable grading has three pillars: accuracy, bias-resistance, and intrinsic motivation,” Feldman said in a different interview conducted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Grades must accurately reflect only a student’s academic level of performance… [and grading] practices must counteract institutional biases that have historically rewarded students with privilege and punished those without. Our grading must stop using points to reward or punish, but instead should teach students the connection between the means of learning and the ends.”

Most teachers observe their year-to-year grade distributions, taking note of any patterns or fluctuations. “My grade distribution fluctuates every year, and like most teachers at the school, most of my grades are Bs and As,” Levenstein said. She does not think that there is one grade that teachers should aim to hand out most frequently, as students should receive the grades that they earn, and there should not be preconceived notions about the strength of a class.

Dalo said his grades tend to be fairly consistent from year to year, only deviating a third of a letter grade at most. If the teacher prepared a fair assessment, the grades which students receive will be what they deserve, he said. “If they end up on the higher side, I usually feel really good, because it means that students got the material I was trying to teach,” Dalo said. 

While grades normally stay fairly consistent from year to year, some teachers who have been teaching at the school for many years have noticed that grades have been slowly increasing. When Bienstock began teaching at the school in the 1980s, all teachers had to maintain a C+ average; however, this policy was eliminated by Dr. Eileen Mullady when she became the new Head of School in 1995, he said. Back then Bienstock was more conscious about grade distribution, but currently, he doesn’t pay much attention to it, he said.

“I have seen grade inflation over the years, probably more dramatic for me than it is for younger teachers,” Bienstock said. “The reality is that grades are much higher than they were years ago, and while I am giving more high grades, I think they are justified since students are working harder.”

According to Little, grades in her class have slowly increased over her 17 years at the school from mainly B-range to mainly A-range, she said. 

Currently, the average GPA of the class of 2021 as calculated by the College Counseling office is a 3.56. 82% of the current senior class has a GPA between a B+ and an A and 38% has a GPA of between an A- and an A, Head of College Counseling Canh Oxelson said.

In 2007, when the College Counseling office first began tracking the average GPA through the end of junior year, the average was around a 3.2. Every year, there is a slight increase in the GPA, which is not uncommon at other schools as well, Oxelson said.

In the college process, it becomes harder to distinguish between students as the range of grades they receive become more and more limited, so colleges are forced to turn to other intellectual markers, such rigor of courses, Oxelson said. “Two 3.7 GPAs could be created very differently, so we have to contextualize to colleges how exactly these students earned these GPAs and the rigor behind the coursework,” he said.

While some people may believe that GPAs are increasing because students are becoming smarter, Oxelson said that the increase in GPAs comes from a variety of factors including students, families, teachers, and societal pressures.

One implication of grade inflation is that students show more anxiety over testing and grades than they used to, Bienstock said. 

“Students feel under enormous pressure to get grades in the A range, which has contributed to grade inflation, because students are now heartbroken to get a B+, when that is not a bad grade,” Little said. “I don’t grade emotionally, but sometimes I think about the emotional impact of grades on my students and guilt myself into giving a higher grade than I should.” In addition, grade inflation can also make it easier on teachers, as they receive less pushback from students regarding low grades, Little said.

Grade inflation can be problematic because the point of a grade is to represent one’s success in class, and if everyone is getting As, that diminishes the value of the grade, Rohan Buluswar (11) said.

Moreover, teachers are finding it harder to provide nuanced feedback to students, as they have a smaller range of which letter grades they can hand out, math teacher Benjamin Kafoglis said.

While grades have been slowly increasing, Little recognizes that it is possible to have an “anomalously strong” group of students, such as her 11th grade class last year, she said. “I have been teaching here long enough to have felt comfortable that they all did very well: not because of any inflation, but simply because they are strong students.”

Teachers also use grades as an assessment of their own teaching. If grades trend low, Dalo recognizes that as a sign that he might not have taught the material as well as he could have or that something was wrong with the assessment he created, he said.

The culture around grades forces the learning process to prioritize receiving a good grade over learning, Wallach said. “There’s a certain unspoken standard amongst students, a number or letter, that you have to reach, and that is what actually causes a large chunk of stress — not the workload, but that number or letter.”

Even though teachers tell students to keep their grades private, as they only reflect one’s individual work, many students still share and compare their grades with their peers, exacerbating competition surrounding grades, Ria Chowdhry (11) said.

Adam Dickstein (11) also finds the culture around grades at the school to be competitive, allowing students to be exposed to how the competitive real world operates, which is not necessarily harmful, he said. 

Furthermore, competition around grades motivates many students to work harder and do their best, Chowdhry said.

While some competition can be healthy, when taken to an extreme, it can create long-lasting emotional and psychological damage, Lau said. “For some students in a competitive school like HM, everything can sometimes feel like a zero sum game where if that kid gets an A, then I can’t get an A, and if that kid gets into a certain college, then I won’t get in,” he said.

There needs to be a change in students’ mindset from being solely grade-oriented to learning-oriented, Chowdhry said. While teachers have continued to push students to focus on learning over grades, students must change this perspective internally, she said.

The overall purpose of education should be to learn, and while part of the process should include markers of a student’s success, students should not go into a class solely with the goal of receiving a high grade, Kafoglis said.

Lau feels dispirited when he hears that some students see the school merely as a “stepping stone” to college, he said. “Students should not just be robots following every rule and taking classes only to get a specific grade so that they can go to a certain college.”

The vast majority of students at the school are genuinely interested in learning, and thus the grade is not necessarily the only motivation that they have for doing well, Dalo said.

Grades certainly serve to motivate students, especially given the chance to get into a certain college, Bienstock said. If the school did not have grades, teachers would likely have to write extensive reports on students, which many teachers would be disinclined to do.

Written reports already exist at the school in the form of advisor comments before parent-teacher conferences and comments at the end of junior year, which allow individual teachers to describe a student’s learning style and progress in that class, Levenstein said. However, students cannot view either of these reports, as they are for advisors and college counselors only.

The only written comments from teachers that students view are typically comments on their report card and any feedback given on assessments, Levenstein said. While a written report for the student would likely be helpful, changing the expectations for teacher feedback would require a shift in teaching practices that would occur over time.

If Walker McCarthy (11) received a report on his learning, he said he would be much happier and engaged in classes that he is particularly passionate about, such as English and history, because he would not have to worry about his grade. 

A “three-grade” system could be more equitable to students as well as shift their motivations, Lau said. A three-grade system would include a grade for the product (such as the content of a paper), process (such as the outline and meeting with your teacher), and progress (how much did you improve from the last assignment), which would account for effort, growth, and understanding.

“Grading for learning is just as important as grading of learning,” Lau said. Grading for learning would be how well the student learned the material, while grading of learning would be how well they studied and put ideas together.

Grades should not only reflect the student’s knowledge of the material, but also the effort they put in, so Wallach would like to try out the three-grade system, she said. While she loves the humanities and puts in a lot of effort into those classes, she struggles with writing eloquently. “[I] never reach the standards that certain teachers have,” she said.

McCarthy particularly enjoyed the grading system of his Latin class freshman year, which prioritized progression, he said. “By the end of the year I felt confident and proficient in Latin, which [my teacher] valued seeing.”

Especially in the current pandemic environment, teachers recognize that grades might have a greater influence on college admissions, since many colleges are going test optional, Wallenfang said.

While the College Counseling office always expects a rise in GPA annually, during last year they observed a larger jump than normal, which is likely due to the school going remote, Oxelson said.

Since this is the first time colleges are viewing transcripts with grades that are higher than projected, Oxelson is unsure of how exactly colleges will react. However, colleges have told Oxelson that they will continue to read all transcripts within the context of the school, he said.

In the college admissions process, grades are the initial factor that determines whether a student will move on in the admissions process at a particular school, Oxelson said. When viewing a transcript, colleges take into account the number of courses in a core subject area, the rigor of the specific courses,  and the grade itself.

One way colleges determine the rigor of the school’s curriculum is by looking at how students from the school have historically performed, Oxelson said. “So if you are from Yale University, you could look at the kids who have come from Horace Mann, how they have done at Yale, and if they succeeded in what are considered rigorous courses at Yale, which would give them a general sense of Horace Mann.”

There are a couple of different possible explanations for this increase, Brooks said. One possibility is that with HM Online, students do not need to commute and also have fewer classes per day, giving them more time to complete their work, he said. In addition, teachers are more sympathetic now than they were beforehand and are more likely to grant an extension, he said.

Working towards equitable grading during the pandemic is complex and a continuous process because there are many outside factors impacting students’ performance in the classroom. Ultimately, there is no one solution to making grades more fair. “Grades are a multidimensional assessment of students’ cognitive and noncognitive abilities,” Lau said. “Cognitive abilities are skills like knowledge acquisition, but there’s also the noncognitive skills of turning your work in on time and speaking up, for example. Figuring out the right balance between the two can be difficult.”