The danger of quantifying everything!

Well, I heard a new one today. But first, the context. I had just handed back English 11 essays, for which I did not use a rubric. Instead, I used a traditional means of feedback. I circled, underlined, and pointed out obvious errors (fragments, run ons, point of view errors, etc.). I made comments about logical omissions or organizational flaws. I commented when writers needed to give evidence for their claims. But overall, the score, the grade, came from my experience in knowing what constitutes an A paper or something not quite. Not only that, but students had the opportunity to conference with me in the drafting stage (an option that only four of the 21 in the class took advantage of). They also were encouraged to review peers’ work, to help each other draft a quality essay. They had three days in a computer lab to craft a two page essay. All in all, a pretty basic writing experience for juniors.

Then, I overheard one of my students (who’d earned a 45/50 by the way) that she had gotten only one wrong, but I had taken off five points. By one wrong, she meant that I had only left one comment on her paper. She obviously thought the exchange rate was off.

I’m still somewhat stunned. I had no idea that students equated a comment or an underline on an essay with an item marked wrong, as when you do 25 math problems and you get five wrong, so you get a 20/25. Maybe I should have been a math teacher (only I don’t really love math. I love words).

Holistic grading is truly dead it seems. Everything must be quantified. Rubrics have become itemized reciepts. Every complete sentence given a point value, whether it makes sense or reads fluently or fits the paragraph or moves the argument forward.  Quality lies in the fact that you spelled everything correctly, not in the relationships of the words to one another? Or am I just taking this girls’ comment (complaint, actually) too far?

What do you think?

If you are reading this and have had a similar experience, please leave a comment. This topic seems worthy of discussion.

Cross posted at The Polliwog Journal

7 Responses to The danger of quantifying everything!

  1. Knighton April 18, 2011 at 5:21 pm #

    It sounds as if you had a day like mine where a student proclaimed that it was my fault that her senior research paper wasn’t ready to turn in. Yes, I too have had that feeling that everything in our teaching lives has turned into a giant numbers game. It’s everywhere–with students, other teachers, admin., parents…you name it and we can find them! One day I am going to have a nightmare where I am being devoured by enormous numbers. Ughh!

  2. Ms Hogue April 23, 2011 at 10:15 am #

    Yes, and all of those numbers really tell us very little about learning, very little about the kind of person a student is becoming. Thanks for your comment.

  3. al stout June 1, 2012 at 9:59 am #

    I have resorted to establishing this thought in my students’s heads: papers are upper half or lower half. Upper = A and B = concerned primarily with analysis (B-ish) and argument (more A-ish). Lower half = Summary (F-ish) and Description (D-ish)… a C is a D paper, with “some analysis,” as the old AP scoring guide for 5’s used to read.

    Problems, kids? Come to me, point out and PROVE to me… there is more analysis and/or argument than I saw when I scored your paper. Never had a taker.

  4. Brian February 1, 2013 at 7:47 pm #

    I stopped using rubrics when I realized I just made them fit the grade I thought the essay should have. Essays are not just the total of the parts – they should be something greater than that. I do use the AP rubric, which I feel is basically holistic grading anyway, mostly because that is how the students will be assessed on the test and I feel an obligation. I argue with my colleagues over this, and I do wish more teachers would consider rubrics as just another alter for the cult of measurement.

  5. Brian Peksa November 5, 2013 at 4:16 pm #

    Rubrics, shumbrics. Does it have value as a piece or not? Is it written well, perfunctorily, or is it garbage? I’m not a teacher, so excuse my ignorance, but you sound like a bunch of academics, which you are, but the quantification argument is one for academia. Here would be my criteria: does it make sense? is it worthwhile or perfunctory? is it well written or horrible, commensurate with the grade level? Holistically, is it an A paper, or is it a C paper? These things are not that hard to surmise. I guess the real question is do you judge the paper on its own merits or in comparison with the rest? Is it an A compared to the drivel the rest of the class submitted or is it an A by your broad standard, taking in account obvious factors such as age and subject matter, etc. When i wrote essays for AP English, they were always marked with marginalia and notes and whole passages were doubly and trebly underlined. I got an A every time because I BROUGHT IT every time. Compared to the rest, I may as well have been a pro essayist. To me, if the paper is a slouch, it’s a slouch; easy peasy. If it knocks you down but is not written expertly, give it an A for content and a C for grammar—B+.

    • Lisa December 21, 2013 at 10:27 pm #

      Brian – I agree with you. I usually give a content grade and a mechanics & usage grade, with the final grade reflective of the two. Rubrics tend to lead to doing what it takes to make a certain grade rather than concentrating on writing an outstanding paper.

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