Education Opinion

Making the Grade

By Nancy Flanagan — May 11, 2012 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

So robo-readers can grade student essays faster and more “accurately” than actual humans--if you’re willing to overlook a few minor details, such as logic and coherence? I have to admit, being able to grade 16,000 essays in twenty seconds is pretty impressive. That’s about 15 years’ worth of old-fashioned assessing, sitting at the kitchen table with a red pen and pot of coffee, for the capable and conscientious HS English teacher who regularly assigns writing. And of course, you actually have to pay the teacher, a major drawback.

Education Testing Service, its developer, calls the program an automated “reader.” A misnomer. Machines can scan documents, rate items using an algorithm, and even “grade,” but they can’t read, if we’re talking about making meaning, using real words. Nor can they “give immediate feedback"--as claimed--unless that feedback is: write longer sentences, including the word “moreover” whenever possible.

The language matters here--let’s define the terms.

There’s assessment. Which is a combination of evaluating students’ work and acquired knowledge, providing feedback for pupils and guidance for the teacher, using multiple lenses. Assessment asks: Is the work of high quality? How does it compare to exemplars? Is knowledge understood well enough to be applied? What skills have been demonstrated? Does the work represent growth for this student? Is the evidence of learning convincing?

Assessment identifies strengths, diagnoses weakness and informs further instruction.

Then--there’s grading. Built into its etymology: sorting, labeling, ranking. Grading is logging data, computing averages and following ranking protocols. It’s measuring compliance with the designated task.

There are different questions around grading: How does this achievement compare to others in the grading pool? Has content been accurately memorized and reproduced? Which assignments are completed and which are missing? What statistical weight do we give to the task being graded? How do I convert this percentage into a letter?

Some teachers include other judgments in a grade: perceived effort, neatness, timeliness, creativity, even things like “cooperation,” none of which measure actual learning. Some use grades as punishment or reward. Teachers in schools where there are on-line grading programs are often compelled to post a minimum number of grades each week, just to fill up the boxes provided. Grading is what state departments do, when they massage data to rank-order schools.

Grading is not assessment.

You would think that parents would prefer to be given complex information on their child’s progress--detailed assessments--but that isn’t necessarily true. One elementary school in my district changed their quarterly reporting system, moving from letter grades in subjects to narrative comments from teachers on a list of outcomes in the district curriculum. It was a lot more work for teachers, but they agreed to the shift, thinking parents would want to know, for example, that little Ashley could correctly count the value of coins, but did not yet understand principles of multiplication.

But no. The narrative grading system was short-lived. Many parents were blunt: they wanted to know how their child compared to other kids. They didn’t care about assessment information. They wanted letter grades--real, hierarchal letters, not wimpy S and U combos or checklists.

Why? Because they themselves got letter grades, back in the day. Because it took too long to read the extended report card. Because they couldn’t give their kids a dollar for every A.

Who taught them to value grading over assessment? We did.

When working with a novice teacher, she told me about a mother who volunteered in her classroom daily. My mentee couldn’t round up enough jobs to keep her busy, so the mom offered to grade papers, record the data, and pass assignments back to kids. The young teacher immediately got back an hour or more each day. But after a couple of weeks, she started to suspect that the mother was sharing information about the students whose work she graded with other volunteer moms. Newbie Teacher wondered about privacy ethics in outsourcing her grading.

My feedback? Yup--it’s ethically shaky. But what’s worse is that you are no longer looking at your students’ work every day. Papers are graded, but you’re not assessing. You’re not identifying misconceptions or seeing growth.

I’m well aware of the time constraints teachers face. Sometimes, you need to shortcut the assessment function and stand in front of the Scantron machine, feeding in answer sheets and dreading the machine-gun rattle that happens when a student misses many of the multiple-choice questions. When that happens, it’s worth remembering that Scantron funds ALEC--buying those expensive machines contributes to de-skilling teaching in more ways than one.

In a beautifully written essay about robo-grading, Renee Moore says that writing is “an exchange of ideas.” Something that doesn’t happen with a machine. I would extend that descriptor to all good assessment practice. It’s not about rating. It’s about sharing ideas, and what happens next.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP