The Tricky Particulars of Grading

As the end of the semester approaches, here are some thoughts on grading in a high school classroom.

Grading is all about assigning value to things: What I’ve taught, what students have learned, and all of the particulars of how those two things come together.

It’s in those particulars that the Bermuda triangle of teacherly reflection has me stuck with my end of semester grading.

My seniors are in the middle of a year long, self-guided inquiry project. For the end of the term, they were supposed to submit a ten-source, annotated bibliography.

Throughout the semester, I’ve given them class time to work on developing inquiry skills. At the end of the semester, I’ve been pleading, begging, and strong arming them to submit something of value.

This is a large point assignment. If students don’t turn it in, it will have a huge impact on their final grade.

Which leads to the first particular I’ve been thinking about: instructional organization.

Instructional Organization

I have been feeling mildly guilty about how my instructional organization has impacted my students’ success.

I allowed students about a day a week of research and work time with due dates spread across the semester.  Concurrently, we were working on other units of study, which included substantial reading and writing instruction.

This proved to be too much for my seniors, who saw our work time as a break from learning. Instead of picking up where they left off, they struggled to shift their thinking between what was happening in the classroom and what was happening in their projects.

Some students managed to bounce back and forth fairly well, but those who were struggling already with the siren song of graduation’s finish line let their illusions of never ending time get the better of them and crammed three month’s worth of work into the last week of school.

Which leads to the second particular of grading that I am trying to come to terms with: due dates.

Due Dates

The bibliographies were due over a week ago, and I powered through grading those that were turned in on time to allow for rewrites. Unfortunately, I only received half of them on time.

This means I have spent the majority of this week grading the stragglers and fighting back the urge to pounce on any student who asks me, “have you had a chance to grade that make-up work yet?”

Philosophically, I believe very strongly that my job (beyond being a teacher of my content) is to help the teenagers in my care to be better human beings. Part of this is to prepare them for life outside of high school, which is a life that includes deadlines.

Every time I get frustrated about their seeming complete disregard for due dates, I pause to think about the deadlines in my adult life. And I realize that I am terrible about meeting them.

For example, I just submitted a receipt for reimbursement yesterday that has been sitting in my files since August.


Now, to be fair, I knew that missing this deadline would only hurt my own finances. As with most things, I weighed my procrastination against the consequences, which led to my decisions about how to prioritize my time.

But I am an adult, and I (mostly) know how to do that. My students think they might have that level of savvy, but they don’t.

I am choosing to accept their late work because not passing English has much harsher consequences then not submitting a receipt for reimbursement. It is not my job to devastate students by stripping them of opportunities because of the poor choices they make at the end of the semester.

Which brings me to the third and final particular of grading worth considering: what is actually being graded?

Grading Standards

It is really hard for me to divorce my emotional baggage from grading. Over the course of the semester, I’ve seen how my students work, how they interact with me and with each other and have very deep seated ideas about who they are as learners.

These ideas always impact my grading, even when I don’t want them to. But I have to work hard to assess students on the skills and concepts that they are meant to master. Creating good rubrics helps with this, but I have to work hard to assess students on their ability to meet the standards, not on their ability to charm me through good behavior in class.

These rubrics won’t help me to feel less annoyed if a student who hasn’t read a single book in my class manages to pull a C for the semester. But they will help me to feel confident that I have graded him on the right things rather than basing his grade on my attitude towards his behaviors.

These rubrics will also help me to truly assess if my seniors have the inquiry skills needed to pick up with the next steps of their projects next semester. Furthermore, they will provide much needed points of reflection for my instructional strategies for moving forward and to make much needed changes to the project for next year.

I don’t know that I will ever be 100% confident in my ability to assign value to student learning. However, I think that it is important, if exhausting, to constantly consider the particulars of this aspect of my craft. That’s the only way to know that the learning is valuable.

And now I need to go finish grading those papers…

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