Objectivity And The Art Of Grading Writing

In a stack of papers called Grading.

  • Mar
  • 02
  • 2006

The chance to read another teacher’s papers presented itself with our schoolwide writing, which we completed back in the middle of January. I traded with the AP English Language teacher, so my opportunity to read writing from another class transformed into the opportunity to read writing produced by AP students. “This will be interesting,” my mind called out, staring at a few stacks of papers. “Time to see how the other half lives,” and I grabbed a pencil, a rubric, and began scoring.

A month later, finally finished with those essays and hoping to never again lay eyes on another paper discussing Svi Shapiro’s suggestion that schools teach moral choices and social issues, my uneasiness about how we grade papers in English roils around in my head. It’s a duel of a discussion happening up there and I’m not sure who’s right.

Do we create a way to objectively grade essays? Does that kind of writing simply create formulaic writers who do not write well outside the formula? And once writers start to experiment with writing outside the prescribed formulas, aren’t we in exactly the same position we are now, one where there are no objective standards for how to write?

There’s an infinitely large amount of ways to begin an essay. Even the first sentence has an infinite number of permutations that are correct. As words start falling on the page, possibilities decrease, but even up until the last word, thousands of possible combinations that add up to a correct sentence exist, possibly hundreds of which support the point of the piece.

And as I’ve talked with students over the years, rubrics don’t mean a thing to them. They don’t look at them; they aren’t laminated beside their computers or framed next to the nightstand; they aren’t helpful in crafting the writing into a final draft. They are a waste of paper and sometimes muddy the waters by presenting the students with confusing language or tired combinations that they’ve seen countless times before. Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

At the high school level, where English courses are college-prep courses by definition, we can’t create an objective way to write without running the risk of formulaic writers who are unable to express their true thoughts. Those kinds of writers are certainly not prepared for college, an environment that demands the ability to put thoughts down on the page in some cohesive fashion as an explanation of your thinking in a course.

And if rubrics, the one element of writing instruction that borders on objectivity, are not used to improve essays and don’t clarify expectations, what do we do?

I’ve already been working with my students on writing, collecting two essays, with a third on the way, without ever handing out an assignment sheet. This is new to me, as I usually write out a fully-detailed handout on the expectations. Students start out unsure of what I want, but it’s clarified through examples we read. Drafts come and go, peer editing takes place, frantic printing eats up my paper, and a final draft makes its way to my hands.

Now, how do I grade this thing?

1 comment

1. Laurie says:

[3/2/2006 - 8:31 pm]

I love the idea of moving away from formulaic writing and the assignments that go with them. My concern is that I may become less able to grade fairly. Equity in grading is an issue that many of my students are concerned with as well. Without some continuity in the writing that is turned in, how do I know that I am not giving Mary’s paper an A and Johnny’s a B simply because I prefer a personal narrative over a persuasive essay? Maybe the answer is that some of the assignments are about writing technique and some are more about content?