What is a grade?

It’s not a gift, and you don’t get points for being old, young, pretty or ugly

Once, sitting with some colleagues in the faculty lounge, conversation turned to a woman who was about to graduate from our university at the decidedly non-traditional age of 75. During this conversation, it was revealed by a grinning fellow professsor that the student in question had failed one of my courses.

“You failed a 75-year-old woman?” someone said incredulously.

“Well, in my own defence,” I replied, “she was only 72 when she took my course.”

I was proud of this bon mot, but my witticism concealed a more serious issue. What is a grade?

Many students, and some professors too, think of a grade as a kind of gift received in a kind of quiet exchange. The student provides attendance and assignments and, in an act of reciprocity, the professor offers a grade. The finer the one gift, the finer the gift given in return. This notion is reinforced by the language we use: “Professor Zeitz gave me a decent grade on my paper, but I don’t know why it wasn’t higher.”

The danger of this view of grading is that it implies that grades are distributed on the personal whim of the instructor. Thus, a student who receives a low grade can shrug it off because, in her mind, it is the malice of the instructor that is to blame. I have literally heard students make precisely this kind of complaint: “I got a lousy grade in his class. I don’t know why he doesn’t like me.” Even worse, when a student gets a grade that is close to the passing level, he cannot understand why Professor Wong just won’t give him a few extra points.

To my mind, however, a grade is not a gift. It is an assessment. It is an expert evaluation of the quality of work done for a particular assignment or on a particular test. It is not personal, and while there is no such thing as absolute objectivity, the grade should be based on clearly stated criteria which are, in turn, based on the expectations of the scholarly discipline in question. Nothing else matters. You don’t get points for being old, or young, or pretty, or ugly, or because you are on the basketball team. You don’t lose points for any of those things, either. And while a professor may reasonably tweak a final grade if she feels the student’s arithmetical score does not precisely match her success in the course, the question is still a simple if not easy one: to what extent did the student demonstrate a mastery of the course material?

This is why, to my mind, it is unethical for a professor to raise a grade simply to let a student get admitted to a graduate program, or keep a scholarship, or stay on a sports team. Those scholarship rules, and required averages, and team regulations are all there for a reason. And if professors raise the grades without academic justification, the grades become meaningless at best, misleading at worst. If those who are paying out scholarship funds demand an 80% average, and a prof helps a student keep that scholarship without having really earned it, that prof has colluded with the student in committing a kind of fraud because the student is taking money on false pretenses. If a sports league requires its players to pass all their courses, the prof who passes athletes just so they can play, is helping the team cheat. Such profs are cooking the academic books in much the same way crooked accountants fudge numbers in corporate backrooms.

People sometimes ask if I fail many students.  I reply that I never fail students, but sometimes, unfortunately, I am duty bound to bear witness to their failure. Even if they are 72.