Grading should be impartial and consistent. It should also be based on how competently the student handles the academic content of the course. Those are the two principles Daryl Close (2009) explores in a fine article titled “Fair Grading.” And they’re principles widely supported by faculty. Even so, Close makes this point: “Because we are well-intentioned, conscientious professors, we assume that we grade our students fairly, regardless of the grading techniques that we use” (p. 362). He challenges that assumption with this honest assessment: “I have practiced at one time or another grading policies that I now believe to be unfair or violations of professional duties” (p. 362).
What follows is a long and thorough exploration of those two principles each elaborated with set of corollary principles that highlight specific policy details. With philosophy providing the disciplinary context, Close carefully constructs arguments and illustrates them with hypothetical examples. Some of his positions are provocative, and he admits that; he’s making the case for a particular set of grading policies. I think the value of the article lies in its power to promote reflection and discussion. We all do lots of grading, and most of us don’t regularly analyze our policies in light of these two core principles.
Principle 1: Grading should be impartial and consistent. “Principle 1 means that, all other things being equal, nothing should be relevant to any one student’s grade that is not relevant to every other student’s grade in the course” (p. 370). Policies that realize this principle specify weights for whatever the teacher considers when assigning grades. In other words, no “fudge factor” grading, such as bumping up borderline grades for students who participated. If asking, answering, and commenting in a course counts, the amount needs to be specified. Teachers should share what’s being graded and how much it’s worth with students at the beginning of the course and adhere to those standards throughout the course.
Close makes the case that Principle 1 rules out grading on a curve for several reasons, beginning with the fact that teachers cannot know prior to evaluating students’ work that some of it will merits Fs and As. If As are given because the curve demands them, then some students have been given grades they did not earn. Principle 1 permits accommodations as long as they do not provide an overall advantage to one student rather than distributing the advantage equally among students.
Some grading policies exempt students from certain course components. Students who’ve earned As don’t have to take the final. Yes, A students are likely to get As on the final, but that’s no guarantee. If an A student seriously blows the final, that may lower their course grade to a B. Close argues, “Either the final exam is essential to determining the course grade, or it is not. There is no in-between” (p. 375). He makes a similar case against dropping the lowest quiz score.
Principle 2: Grades should be based on the student’s competence in the academic content of the course. Adherence to Principle 2 rules out the use of nonacademic factors like classroom behavior, attendance, punctuality, and other moral virtues, such as showing respect during discussions. Close endorses classroom “rules” that specify the need to show respect, but he would not lower the grades of students who failed to show it. Rude behavior can be called out, and failure to respect others may bar a student from attending class, but those behaviors are unrelated to a student’s mastery of course content. Furthermore, students can learn the content without attending class, buying or reading the text, and often without participating. “Contaminating the grade with information beyond the academic content of the course makes the transcript unreliable, even useless, in determining levels of knowledge and competence” (p. 369). Close also believes that Principle 2 mandates that grades should be the assessments of experts, not peers, although he does not rule out formative peer assessment.
The policies Close proposes offer a strict interpretation of the principles. With some content and for some teachers, that level of policy purity may not be practical, but teachers need to figure that out on an individual basis. Much as road crews repaint the yellow and white lines, Close’s piece repaints the fair grading lines, making it easy to see whether a set of policies stays between them.
Close, D. (2009). Fair grades. Teaching Philosophy, 32(4), 361–398. https://doi.org/10.5840/teachphil200932439
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