ASK THE EXPERTS

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.