English Grading System Causes Controversy

Upper School students have trouble understanding how English teachers objectively grade their assignments

As a subject that centers on concepts more abstract than numbers, facts and rules, English poses a struggle for many students aiming to achieve the highest grades possible in their classes.

“Everyone has different levels of writing,” senior Ginny Crow said. “I wish there was more of a standard because it’s hard to compare [the writing abilities of] two people.”

However, the English Department has designed a system of grading to implement fair, unbiased and consistent evaluation of assignments.


Calibrating Grades

To address students’ qualms and to implement a fair system of grading, the English department regularly meets to discuss grading prerequisites and grade papers together. English Department Chair Deborah Moreland calls this “calibrating grades.”

“We established a number of years ago what an A, B, C and D looks like,” she said. “The essay that receives a high grade needs to merit it: awareness of audience, rhetorical devices, style, purpose, ethos.”

About once every month, all of the Upper School English teachers meet to grade randomly-picked student papers. The teacher who assigned the essay will explain what the assignment was, how long the student had to work on it and any other background information necessary for the other teachers to know in order to fairly assess it. Each English teacher then decides a hypothetical grade for the anonymous paper and shares his or her ideas with the rest of the department. According to Moreland, there is usually not much discussion needed to reach a general consensus.

“It works out very well,” Moreland said. “We might be half a grade off, but generally we’re on target.”

There are also grading rubrics available online to assist teachers in accurately and fairly assessing their students’ assignments.

Furthermore, English teachers oftentimes meet with students before an assignment is due to go over their progress on the assignment and recommend methods of improving their arguments. According to Moreland, anonymous grading was also designed to bring in fresh, unbiased perspectives in evaluating the assignment.

“When I talk about [an assignment] so much [in a writing conference], it gets to the point that the I know what the student wants to say, even if she couldn’t say it sufficiently gracefully,” Moreland said. “I might know that, but the rest of the teachers don’t.”

Moreland also acknowledges that there is an inherent subjectivity in grading English assignments because the nature of the subject itself is not strictly defined.

“It’s not clearly right or wrong. It’s complicated,” she said. “We do not have quotas. We do not have curves. We’re English, we’re not math. We have constant discussion. And we have those discussions because this is not a science.”

Students also find themselves struggling to deal with the abstract aspect of the subject.

“There’s not a formula you can follow,” Crow said. “You can study for other classes.”


How New English Teachers are Introduced to Grading

New English teachers are immediately introduced to the department’s method of regularly sharing grades. Brian Hudson, a new Upper School English teacher this year, believes that “calibrating grades” benefits not only students but also new teachers.

“It helps in assessing papers and also in teaching them, because it’s tells you what other people are doing,” he said. Additionally, other English teachers who have taught at Hockaday for a long time will provide new teachers will exemplar papers to guide them in their grading processes.

At Austin High School in Austin, Texas, where Hudson taught before joining Hockaday, grading rubrics were largely based on the standards set by The College Board. These rubrics, Hudson said, “were not necessarily designed for formal papers with extensive drafts.” Rather, the College Board curriculum trains students to write essays in about 40 minutes.

However, the general criteria between Austin High School and Hockaday remained consistent for Hudson.

“We looked for sophistication of style, complexity of ideas, and we also sat down and calibrated grades. The nice thing here [at Hockaday] is that we can sit down as a department, rather than only with teachers of the same grade level,” he said.

Hudson also noticed that Hockaday students were held to higher expectations than those that were held at his previous school.

“It’s not that we expected less of our students from Austin High School, but they came from such diverse backgrounds and were not all necessarily prepared in the same way,” he said.

Although the environments of Austin High School and Hockaday are very different, Hudson did not experience much trouble in adjusting to Hockaday’s grading system.

“I think most teachers read a paper and know what general category it falls in: A, B, C or D. But getting to the specifics of plus or minus, papers aren’t always easy to categorize in that sense,” he said. “They may have strengths in one area and weaknesses in another, so you have to think about how that all balances out.”


The Disconnect Between Students and Teachers

Senior Jessica Cloud is doubling up on English this year. She has taken Literature and Philosophy and Contemporary American Literature first semester, and she is now taking Popular Fiction and Creative Writing for her second semester credits. She noticed a discrepancy between the two English teachers grading her papers at the same time.

“Especially this year when I was doubling up for English classes and writing papers for two different teachers,” she said, “that became really apparent.”

The English Department has defined the letter grade “B” as average. For students who are accustomed to receiving high, “A” level grades, they may struggle with maintaining this expectation. “A”’s are seldom awarded, and “A+”’s are almost out of the question.

“Teachers who have been around here for a while will say that they’ve had one or two [A+’s] in their career,” Moreland said. “It’s not routine. If it was, it wouldn’t be an A+.”

Teachers spend about 30-45 minutes grading a student’s major essay, according to Moreland, which is “a lot of thinking for a three-page paper.”

English Department grading also varies within each Upper School year. However, the general requirements and expectations remain consistent with each year.

“It’s a matter of degree,” Hudson said. “What makes a paper strong at any level is probably consistent in that you’re looking for a strong thesis, and organization that fits the ideas in the paper and isn’t forced.”

And although there may be a disconnect between students and their English teachers, most students remain relatively satisfied with the system of grading.

– Amy Tao