Deflating The Grade

In a stack of papers called Instruction.

  • Jan
  • 06
  • 2011

The semester is over for us and I’m thinking about last semester, strangely simultaneously too much and not enough. The thing that got me thinking was the general decline in the number of Fs earned this semester. I’m usually right around a twnety-five percent F rate and this year it’s at about fifteen percent. When I looked at what I did differently to try and account for that change, I noticed that there was way, way, way less formal writing last semester. That got me thinking about whether or not that’s a good thing. Which got me thinking about something else.


Even if you don’t weight your grades (and I really don’t believe you should), you no doubt have categories your assignments fall into. For me, there’s:

  • Assignments
  • Vocabulary
  • Do Firsts/Reading
  • Writing

All of the work in my class fits into one of those categories. A few years ago, when I stopped weighting grades, I figured out the percentage of the final grade for each of those categories. That’s changed in a big way this year.


In the past, roughly fifty percent of the total points available in the course have come from assignments in that Writing category. For me, those are formal writing assessments, places where I actually examine the quality of the writing, not just the quantity or existence of it. Those are the dreaded essays. Fifty percent of points, writing that I try my best to hold to high standards with as much objectivity as humanly possible when grading the subjective craft of writing.

This last semester? Roughly thirty percent came from the Writing category. Out of 2347 points available, only 745 came from writing, so about thirty-two percent.


Is that why my F rate went down? Is that why students’ grades are better? Is that the way it should be? For a long time, I’ve thought that the writing grade in an English class should be THE grade. I’ve even said that the grade a student earns in writing should be the highest grade the student can earn in the course. Since this is not the case, I’m worried that I’m sending students on with inflated grades. Or maybe I’m worried that I’ve always sent them on with deflated grades.

So that’s how I’m starting semester two, in the same existential crisis I’ve been in for years and years. I’ll let you know how that works out.


1. Tom says:

[1/13/2011 - 4:48 am]

I’m interested/confused by what you mean when you say you don’t “weigh” grades — what could this mean? Does this mean you don’t “weigh” them equally? Or that you use points to assign weights instead of some other item?

Regarding writing, I think it would of course depend on the course how much it should weight, but 35% doesn’t seem so far off.

Currently, I’m teaching a Shakespeare course. I have writing (composition) weighing in at about 25% of the grade, with speaking and acting weighing another 25%, analysis weighing 35% or so and what I call “work habits” (i.e. completion of tasks) filling out the remaining 15%.

Next semester, I’ll be teaching a class called The Craft of Fiction and I fully expect the writing to weigh 50% of the final grade.

A question, though: when you talk about a student’s grade in writing, what do you do about non-completion or lateness? In other words, what happens to the eloquent but slow-to-complete or only-completes-half-the-work student in your class?

2. Todd says:

[1/13/2011 - 6:22 am]

You got it on your final guess, Tom: I use points to assign weights. It’s easier for students to see how the grade works and forces me to make things worth appropriate points according to how important I think that assignment is. I used weights for years and students were confused because it involves a lot more math than almost all students are willing to use to figure out why they have a D when they’ve earned a B on all the in-class work.

My writing assignments routinely have a score for MLA format. On a 430-point paper, 30 of those points would go into assessing how closely they follow proper MLA format. Late work gets a zero for that. It’s enough of a penalty to discourage late work, but not so harsh that late work seems a waste of time. I also have tutoring hours after school three days a week. Students who come to those hours and complete work in the room are eligible for full credit on those assignments, no matter how late the work is.

I teach mainstream English classes. We aren’t lucky enough to have the kinds of electives you’re dealing with. Sounds like fun!

3. Tom says:

[1/14/2011 - 4:09 pm]

The electives are fun. I actually am mostly a Spanish teacher, but I get to teach some Junior/Senior English electives (long story… I actually have my degree in teaching English, but have primarily taught Spanish for the last 5 years…).

Your late policy definitely interests me. We’ve had a big push at our school from teachers to set harsher late policies and I’ve been worried about the demotivating potential thereof. I’m interested to see how others handle grades so as to value timeliness and work completion but still keep the focus on the skill at hand.

4. Hadley says:

[4/25/2011 - 7:56 pm]

I last commented on this site three years ago, on “What Students Need, But Don’t Get.” I was 17 then, and in grade 12, here in Canada. I’m 20 now, and I’ve just finished up my first year of university with good marks.

I remember back in my high school days I was awfully apathetic, and aware of it. I was the kind of student who would very often hand things in late, or not at all. When grade 12 rolled around, I kind of shut down, especially in English class. Showed up every day, but did nothing. Late penalties would pile up: -10%, -20%, -30%, and beyond.

In both of my English classes, however, my teachers each made an exception for me. When it became clear that I didn’t want anything to do with their classes, they essentially just reset the due date on the one big-deal, super-heavily-weighted assignment I had botched. And I handed both of those assignments in, with good marks on each.

I’m sure the validity of their actions in letting my lateness slip is something highly debatable; perhaps they were unfair to other students who worked hard to get it in on time, or did not properly represent my ability to do the work, et cetera. But am I better off because of their leniency? Yes. I went through the process and did the assignment, in both cases. If the late marks went on and on, past the -50% mark, I would have given up on the whole idea. But when I found some motivation, later, I was still given the chance to do the assignment.

If I read it correctly, your marking scheme has a set late penalty, that doesn’t change no matter how late it gets? I think that is a fabulous idea. If a student was apathetic enough to miss the due date, how would a spiralling mark help to motivate them? It goes down, down, and the remnants of their motivation goes with it. A set, unchanging late penalty is an excellent plan for high school, I think.