Why I’m Done with Quantitative Grades

I’m tired of the dance.

The dance begins when I assign a homework assignment, essay, quiz, or other assessment, give it a (relatively arbitrary) number of points. The students then correspond by getting it done (usually at the last possible minute) or not getting it done. Those who get it done are given a (relatively arbitrary) number of points based upon the way I’m feeling that day or, if I’m really diligent, using a constricting rubric that, with it’s fancy boxes and edu-speak laden descriptions, appears slightly less arbitrary.

Throughout the semester, I pass out grade sheets that indicate how many points each student has relative to the total amount available. This also appears quantitative (LOOK! NUMBERS!), but of course, it isn’t. It’s based upon the number of points I happened to felt like giving that assignment, compounded by how many points I chose to deduct from the student because they committed the cardinal sin of making a mistake while learning (a mistake they were not allowed to correct in order to improve their score, of course, because that would be “unfair”).

The students, intuitively knowing this, begin the part of the dance known as the “Soul Suck”: they line up next to my desk like Duke fans waiting for basketball tickets to go on sale. But their goal is more emblematic of this process: they want to debate the merits of each individual assignment and the points they did or did not receive. As they (rightfully) question the process, I’m thinking about more enjoyable activities, such as hitting myself over the head with a tackhammer. When not spending time in the shantytown that they’ve created around my desk, they spend an unnecessary amount of time stressing out and determining how many points they need on the remaining assignments to retain whatever grade they hope to achieve. The equations done in this process should qualify for additional credit in the Math department. The most industrious of these students develop entire strategies that weigh the value of their time spent on any given assignment against (a) the likelihood that I will not be so swamped that I can give it an adequate amount of time in my reading of it, and (b) the likelihood they will be able to successfully lobby for “extra credit,” which usually involves completely some minor piece of “authentic learning” that I may be able to look at during the 5 minutes before my grades are due in order to bump their grade up.

They then spend the rest of the semester thinking not about what they’re learning, not about what they’re interested in, not about ways in which they could make something that might change the world, but instead about the 2 points they missed on that homework assignment six weeks ago because they didn’t cite a source properly.

I, of course, continue the process, confident that I am creating a thorough and rigorous class with Quantifiable Measures of Progress and Clear Student Outcomes. I’m not using my expertise as a teacher to work with students, meet them where they are, assess their progress in narrative fashion on a regular basis, recognize what they need to do to improve their skills, and maintain a continual dialogue that both helps them improve as a learner and me improve as a teacher. Nope, there’s not enough time in the semester for that. I’d rather contribute to a system that makes students stressed out and focused on ridiculous “point totals,” drives me crazy with conversations that are, frankly, a waste of time, and generally makes school a dreary dredge through a minutiae-obsessed gauntlet of mind-numbing busywork for all of us.

The dance is old, tired, and bad for education. I’m done with it.



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