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It's All in the Letter

Updated on March 14, 2013

The Weaknesses of Grading

A few days ago, I was completing my tri-annual task of compiling grades for students in the seven courses that I taught this past semester. It is one of the few times during the year that I question somewhat my choice of profession. Pouring over hundreds of essays and punching in numbers on Excel spreadsheets for hours on end will do that to you. It also makes me slightly envious of those who are OK with the idea of basing grades purely on multiple choice tests graded by a machine. That damn conscience can be a pain in the butt sometimes.

The strangest part of the process, however, comes at the end. When all of the finals are graded and the numbers accumulated over four months are compiled, I am forced to sum up each student’s achievements with a choice of one of five letters. The A-F grading system, because it has been in place for decades, may seem like the perfectly natural culmination of the evaluation process. It is fairly limited, however, in its capacity for measuring an accurate assessment of a student’s performance.

Take the letter grade “C”, for instance. For some students, “C” might as well represent the term “crap”. In their minds, it is little better than an “F”. But for others, a “C” means that they “crossed” the threshold necessary to get those three units of college “credit”. They have also been “cured” from the ailments associated with listening to a history professor like me rambling on about dead people for hours on end. The trouble is that in my class, a “C” represents a wide range of achievement levels. Because my grading scale is more generous toward the bottom than at the top, a “C” represents everything from 65% to 79.9%. So a “C” is assigned to everyone from the person who barely missed having to take the class over again to someone who barely fell short of a “B”. From reading a transcript, you have no way of knowing, therefore, if this is a person who came very close to either of the hugely different marks of “B” or “D”. And while a “+” and “-“ system might provide some increased precision, the cutoffs between the various grades are still arbitrary. Unfortunately, in a world in which all of us exist on some sort of a continuum, the traditional grading system creates the mistaken impression that we can be placed into a limited number of distinct, objective categories. Does it make sense to sum up months of work and piles of electronic data in just a single letter?

Of course, if you believe that some sort of a divine being grades us all when we are standing at Saint Peter’s gate, the system is even more limited. Unless you are a Catholic who buys into some sort of a purgatory, it is a pass or fail system. And the consequences of failure are much more severe than the requirement to retake a class or a lowered GPA. So what criteria might our divine judge use to separate people into the two categories? What is the arbitrary cutoff between pass and fail? Some would claim that it is fairly simple. Instead of an arbitrary system in which people who were good 65% of the time get to go to the happy place, it comes down to faith. Those who believe in the correct things and have received complete, undeserved exoneration for their past and future sins will someday be allowed to enter into eternal bliss. But those who have picked the incorrect belief system are out of luck. So it ultimately comes down to a single decision, not to a lifetime of behavior and an arbitrary cutoff line. If it came to behavior, we would all go to hell. God is supposedly too much of a perfectionist to allow anyone in who has even a single blemish on his or her record. So if I were as righteous as he, I would flunk everyone who even missed a single point. (Thankfully for my students, I am not that righteous.)

Faith, however, is not something that is a simple either/or proposition. As with anything else, people possess various levels of faith. And at various moments of our lives, our faith in a religious belief system or anything else can waver, and our beliefs regarding the ultimate questions of life might change. I was raised a Catholic, became in college an evangelical Christian, and am now, for lack of a better term, a Unitarian agnostic. So which “me” will ultimately be judged? Was I saved during my Catholic baptism, or did my college conversion and re-baptism do the trick? Is salvation something that you can gain at one point and later lose (when you become a semi-godless Unitarian like myself)? The fact that Christians will give you different answers to these simple, obvious questions indicates that the Bible does not provide any simple answers. Some verses may indicate that salvation is gained in an instant and can never be lost, while others seem to say that faith must be lived out over the course of a lifetime. It ultimately comes down to the question of whether the term faith – or, more accurately, the original Greek concept – is a reference to thoughts or actions. But either way, the relative quality of each person’s faith rests on a continuum. It is not so simple as separating people into the faithful and faithless.

So if God is the great cosmic grader in the sky, he faces the same dilemma as I. If I am required to place a simple label on people and divide them into arbitrary levels of academic performance, how can I do this in a way that is the least unfair? There is no perfect grading system. The whole concept of grading system is inherently unfair and imprecise. But we must have some means of determining to what degree a person has fulfilled the requirements necessary to demonstrate that he or she has actually taken a class. If we just check people off for signing up and showing up to a room on occasion, many students will happily do the bare minimum. So I must work with the system that has been granted to me. At least God has the option to set up a system in whatever way that he sees fit. And I find it hard to believe that a being with the power and wisdom to create the universe would come up with a system even dumber than the A-F grading system.


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