Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Objectivity of Grades

I was going to respond to the ongoing thread in yesterday's post, but thought that the argument deserved its own space in order to be thorough. The claim has been put forward and agreed to that grades on work like papers is subjective and thereby meaningless. This, I want to argue, is entirely false. Grades are not subjective. The "culture of grades" may be deeply harmful to students, but that is not because the marks assigned are random, a matter of taste, or a function of arbitrary factors.

An anecdote: I was on a committee several years back in which a music history prof brought in three essays from her class and asked us all to grade them. None of us were experts and we ranged over the entire college. There was a biologist, a physicist, a Spanish prof, a German prof, a sociologist, a management prof, an economist, and me, a philosopher. We read carefully through the three essays and graded them without discussion or contact amongst us. In the end, every single one of us had the same grades for the assignments to within a single +/- grade. I do not believe this was accidental or chance.

Every year we have senior thesis papers that we grade. The adviser of the writer assigns the grade, but we all read over the papers to make sure that we are grading in a way that is consistent across the department and it is the minority of papers about which there is any disagreement. The point is that grades are replicable. Repeated grading does not usually turn up radically different results.

What accounts for this is that when we assign grades, we have reasons for that grade. There are things we look for: depth of understanding, clarity of thought, active engagement with appropriate sources, insight beyond quoted sources, the ability to synthesize different sources into a coherent argument, taking seriously dissenting views and approaching them critically and respectfully. Now, there is no ideal paper that has this much insight, that much scholarship,... Different papers have different strengths and weaknesses, in part connected with the topic, but there are aspects of a good paper that we cite when justifying a grade.

Sure, grades may differ to some degree from prof to prof, some may expect more scholarship, others may reward slightly higher a spark of insight that the student clearly has but didn't work out fully. But we must be careful not to confuse objectivity with the ability to quantify. Just because there is not some algorithm by which we compute a paper grade does not mean that there isn't a real difference in the world between an A and B or a B and a C paper. There is.

We must be careful to distinguish the fact that the grade is underdetermined from the claim that it is subjective. To say that "x is subjective" is to say that whether x is true or not is purely and completely a function of personal belief. If something is subjective, then there is no way that I can be wrong about it and there need be no reason for my belief. If I prefer vanilla to chocolate ice cream then I just do. I can't be wrong about this. If you try to convince me that I only think that I prefer vanilla, but I really -- unbeknownst to me -- prefer chocolate, you are talking crazy talk. There is also no rational discussion that will make me change my mind. My taste is my taste.

But grades are not a matter of taste. We can change our minds for rational reason and it is not a matter of I like or I don't like. Grades are not subjective. You may challenge an unfair grade as unfair which means that you have inherent in your understanding of grading a sense fairness, of "ought," and that means that there is a sense -- admittedly, limited -- in which grades are objective.