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What to do when grading seems unfair

By Karen Deger McChesney, Contributing Writer

Question:

What do you do when in one high school different teachers grade students differently? For example, a smart student with a strict teacher ends up getting a B while an average student with a lenient teacher ends up getting an A. What do you do in such a case? The assistant principal is not even willing to give an appointment to talk about this problem.

Answer:

Grades and reporting student learning have long been contentious issues among educators, mainly because grading scales vary widely among school districts - and often within schools. Add subjectivity, and it becomes difficult to know what a GPA really means! Although teachers try to develop grading policies that are honest and fair, their practices vary widely, even among those who teach at the same grade level within the same school. According to the Encyclopedia of Education by the Gale Group, "Grading is ultimately an exercise in professional judgement by teachers."

My first suggestion is to make sure your student completely understands the course syllabus for each class. Most high school teachers distribute a course syllabus (on the first day of class) which outlines their specific grading scale as well as the school's grading policy. Secondly, I recommend finding out more about the school's grading system. Many schools have moved to standards-based grading; some school districts are experimenting with grading systems that try to take the subjectivity out of grading by requiring every teacher to use the same criteria based on the same curriculum.

Keep in mind, in most schools grades are calculated by a computerized system, not by the teacher. A computer cannot be strict or lenient. Of course, a certain amount of subjectivity goes into grading a paper. From elementary school on, grading rubrics are the most common form of evaluation that teachers use to communicate expectations and align assignments with state curriculum standards. Ask your teen if his teachers hand out rubrics for writing assignments and projects.

I am not sure if you are defining "strict teacher" according to how he grades or manages his classroom; and, I am not sure if a group of parents have identified an overall problem in your school with the grading scale. Regardless, if your teen truly believes that a teacher is being strict or lenient and adding or subtracting from his grade (once in the computerized system), then he should talk to and question his teacher.

Bottom line, if your teen feels that a grade was unfair, incorrect, etc., it is critical that he meet with his teacher immediately. I encourage my students to question their grades, because it shows they are invested, engaged and taking complete responsibility for their performance. Your teen will undoubtedly benefit from sitting with his teacher one-on-one and walking through his grade report (on the computer screen), asking questions, getting feedback from the teacher on his highs and lows, any missing assignments, etc. For every class, students should know if the teacher:

  • Grades on a curve
  • Gives points for in-class participation, group work, attendance, etc.
  • Makes adjustments for ranges in each class (In many schools, teachers are allowed to adjust grade ranges for their class. Many schools, for instance, add .5 to the value of an Advanced Placement (AP) class if a student takes the AP test, thus, an A would be a 4.5, a B would be a 3.5, etc.)
  • Gives opportunities for extra credit
  • Uses rubrics
  • Allows students to "toss" a low test, quiz or assignment
  • Gives points for late work

Often parents discover that a teen's complaint about a specific teacher's grading may actually be indicative of other problems. For instance, I recently counseled a student who was complaining that he had the hardest chemistry teacher in the high school and "My friends all have the easy one." As I dug deeper and asked more questions, the student revealed he was struggling with reading the worksheets in chemistry class and needed extra help.

If you, as parents, continue to feel there is inequity in grading scales from teacher to teacher, I would highly recommend that you try one of the following:

  • Email or call the teacher in question and request a meeting of you, your teen and the teacher.
  • Email the principal and request a meeting.
  • Request that the principal make a presentation at a PTA or PTO meeting about the school's grading system.

Karen Deger McChesney is a Colorado-based high school English teacher, contributing writer to various magazines and educational publications, and stepmother to a high school student.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

01/26/2012:
"What about a grading policy where 30% of the grade is from classwork which must be 100% complete and correct in order to get 2 out of 2 points. One missing or incorrect answer gets 0 out of 2 points. The student can only use his/her notes to find the answers. When the bell rings, if the paper is not 100% correct, the student gets a 0 out of 2. Homework is graded the same way - everything complete and correct or the grade is 0 out of 2. This is also weighted at 30% of the grade. So 60% of the grade is based on work which must be 100% correct, or it's a 0. Does this sound reasonable to anyone? By the way, this is a hich school spanish 1 class. "
11/28/2011:
"My son's in first grade. He goes to a different class for reading and has a different teacher for this class as well. After she gave my son a hard time for missing 4 days of school when we went out of town,(which the school office, and his main teacher had already cleared) I confronted her about the situation. She later gave him a lower grade on his report card that I felt he didn't deserve. I had a conference with her after this and she said the reason for 'said' grade was because she felt he wasn't participating (raising his hand) in the class because he was a little shy. According to her it wasn't just based on his reading ability. Recently I just discovered from my son, that she has also been filling 6 and 7 year old children in about some of the atrocities that have been in the news in his 'Reading Class' as well. Now my son is having a hard time sleeping at night. Can someone tell me if this is normal because I'm having a hard time accepting this as being the norm for ! a First grade teacher. "
08/26/2010:
"My son has a learning disability, is dyslexic, low economic household, and a limited Eng. Prof. He is eager to learn and work. He strives to do what the teachers ask of him and is very talented in many many ways. We are facing many problems with his schools. One of them is that the district insists on grading his his HOMEWORK. Well, the problem is that he sometimes doesn't remember how to work the problems out and I can't help him because I have been out of school for over 20 years. I try to find books and websites to help him, but we get discouraged when some of the answers are wrong and he gets a low grade (lower than 50). I feel it's not fair because some of his fellow class members are the teachers' own children. We feel we are at a disadvantage YET ONCE MORE! We have spoken to the teachers, principal, and the superintendent about it. They continue to grade harshly and his report cards show low grades. When I get upset and go to talk to them about it, he magic! ally gets 100's on everything. That is going to the other extreme and doesn't show me a true picture of how he's doing. What can we do?"
03/19/2010:
"Is it common for middle school teachers to assign worksheets and then select which questions will be graded. For example a grammar worksheet that had 55 questions was assigned. The teacher selected 5 questions, assigned a 5 pt value to each and assigned the grade. My child got 13/25 for an F. I am not sure if this accurately reflects his understanding of the worksheet."
01/28/2010:
"I was pushed out of a high school for giving honest grades and holding students to reasonable expectations. The teachers who stayed were the ones that gave everyone easy grades for doing absolutely nothing. Now I see the students at the university and they are in all remedial classes because they never learned anything in high school."
11/3/2009:
"My son is in H.S. He has had 2 math teachers who give regular assignments of several problems, but then only grade a random handful (3-7) of the problems. If he only scores 2/3 it is an F at this school. I feel that if he put in the effort to complete the homework it should be fully graded. He does struggle in math, but I don't think he is doing F work. His current teacher also does not keep up with the grades. She makes them re-do certain assignments to proficiency, which I don't have a problem with, but she enters zeros in the grades until then, even though the assignment has been done (although not up to the level she wants). These zeros as we know kill these kids, and his grade shows an F all the time. Help."
11/2/2009:
"My son is in H.S. He has had 2 math teachers who give regular assignments of several problems, but then only grade a random handful (3-7) of the problems. If he only scores 2/3 it is an F at this school. I feel that if he put in the effort to complete the homework it should be fully graded. He does struggle in math, but I don't think he is doing F work. His current teacher also does not keep up with the grades. She makes them re-do certain assignments to proficiency, which I don't have a problem with, but she enters zeros in the grades until then, even though the assignment has been done (although not up to the level she wants). These zeros as we know kill these kids, and his grade shows an F all the time. Help."
06/12/2009:
"Hi My son received a 69.5% grade in the 2nd semester in French. he needs at least c- for college, the teacher gave him a D, is there anything we can do?"
03/5/2008:
"Out of curiosity, how would you assess the fairness of a course in which the marking period grade is found with 70% being from test grades, of which there is only one two-day test in the entire marking period?"
02/27/2008:
"Our schools has a very high grading scale 96 is B+. Parents are finding when applying to colleges, they are losing scholarship dollars because their gpa is down. Also students aren't wanting to take some of the advanced classes, because of the rist of getting a lower grade. We've talked to the school and they seem not to want to budge. Any suggests."
10/25/2007:
"A suggestion: before addressing the issue with the teacher, first assess what the student means by strict and lenient. Sometimes, strict means that the teacher deducts point for late assignments or won't reward sloppy work. My daughter (now out of college)feels that the strict teachers are the ones from whom she learned the most. Maybe we need to take a longer view of what education is about."
10/24/2007:
"Bravo! You answered this fully and gave good suggestions for what a parent and student could do in this situation. Thank you."
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