Problems with Marking


The simple reason to mark is to let the student (and his parents) know how well he has learned what was taught. But this simple statement hides some complications.

The first is to distinguish knowledge, skill and understanding from one another and to be sure we have assessed each of them effectively. If I ask my students to write an essay on ephemerality in Bashō’s Narrow Road to Oku, the answer should allow me to judge their knowledge of Japan and its writing; their skill in marshaling evidence to make a well-written, coherent argument; and their penetration into Bashō’s world-view and religion. If I ask them multiple-choice questions about Oku, I will not be able to make such a judgment.

We also have a problem with understanding itself. How do we judge that a student has understood something rather than just memorized words that mimic understanding? More fundamentally, if teachers do not actually teach understanding, but only establish conditions in which it can occur, how can they be sure that their students have had the chance they need to establish and communicate the understanding the course requires? Robert Frost said[1], “How do I know whether a man has come close to Keats in reading Keats? It is hard for me to know. I have lived with some boys a whole year over some of the poets and I have not felt sure whether they had come near to what it was all about. One remark sometimes told me…. And that is enough if it was the right remark…. You ought to be marked for the closeness, for nothing else.” One reason why discussion is so important in establishing marks for understanding is that we need discussion so the one right remark can occur.

Frost thought that some colleges rid their curricula of the “poetry nuisance” by not teaching the understanding and knowledge of poetry at all, but “turn[ing] it out to disport itself” with plays and games. The resulting pseudo-understanding he called “sunset raving,” in which the aficionado faces the sunset and goes “oh”, “ah.” The problem: how do we mark oh’s and ah’s and other inarticulate responses? He approved of enthusiasm but he wanted it “taken through the prism of the intellect.” That refraction allows the kind of marking that “oh” and “ah” make difficult.

Of course, we must then set the kinds of assessments that will  allow us to do that kind of marking. Frost could never have imagined that we would reach a point where students’ proficiency in subjects like poetry  is determined entirely by answers to multiple-choice questions. How can we find the ‘right remark’ by a student who is only asked to point?

We also have problems extrinsic to particular courses. They arise because a grade can be used for other purposes than its simple and ostensible one as an indicator. They can, for example, be used in aggregations to determine a student’s suitability for admission to a desirable university or for the award of a scholarship. When grades stop being simply indicators and start being a basis for making consequential decisions, they become subject to the pressure of corruption[2]. This is true not just for actual grades but also for ‘predicted grades’ such as the IB program requires its teachers to give. Predicted grades were originally required to allow the comparison of expectation and results–by the teacher as a check on wishful thinking and by the IBO as a check on faulty marking. Now they are often used as the basis of university admission decisions. No prizes for guessing what kind of corruption pressure is the result.

And what about the practice of grading ‘on a curve’? In this bizarre marking, one’s letter grade depends not on how good one’s results were, but how they compared to the results of others in one’s class. Lady Bracknell’s ghost must be satisfied to be vindicated in asserting that “statistics are laid down for our guidance.”

It’s enough to make people ask, as in a recent article for The New York Times, “Why Can’t Everyone Get A’s?” The writer did not mean to ask why everyone is not doing excellent work in rigorous courses. In fact, he ridiculed rigor as ‘macho’. He meant to ask why the whole system of inappropriate and corrupted marking is not thrown over for the sake of its unfortunate victims.

Frost’s answer was that ‘we are all being marked by each other all the time, classified, ranked, put in our place, and I see no escape from that. I am no sentimentalist. You have got to mark, and you have got to mark, first of all, for accuracy, for correctness.’ That minimum accomplished, you can then establish conditions in which it is possible to mark for taste and judgment. Finally, you will be able to mark for imagination, initiative, enthusiasm and originality.

[1]In his 1930 meditative monologue on ‘Education by Poetry’, which he wrote and delivered while he was a poetry teacher at Amherst.

[2]This phenomenon is the ambit of Campbell’s Law.

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