Giving a grade to grade transparency

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Hannah Cho

Rachel Lee ’17 impatiently waited as the clock counted down the minutes until 6 p.m. on March 22. Three minutes later, she logged onto the Harvard-Westlake student portal and accessed her long-awaited third quarter grades.

“I just felt so relieved to finally see my grades, regardless of whether they were good or bad,” Lee said. “It’s such a weight off my shoulders to know for certain where I stand in a class.”

Students have access to their current grades four times a year—at the end of first quarter, first semester, third quarter and after final exams. However, in between these dates, students have no easily accessible resource to check their grades.

Unlike teachers at other schools such as Campbell Hall and Marymount High School, Harvard-Westlake teachers do not update grades weekly or allow students to check their grades online whenever they like. Instead, in most classes, if students want to know their grades before an academic quarter is over, they have to meet with their teachers or deans.

“It’s discouraged for teachers to keep a constant running tally of all of their grades anywhere online, and that was a purposeful decision, just like the decision to not have parents be able to track grades online because you would literally have parents hitting the refresh button,” upper school dean Beth Slattery said. “So while I think that the school understands that for some students [not knowing grades] causes anxiety, there is a strong feeling that the constant tracking of grades would cause more anxiety and would also create a constant nagging of the teacher.”

While the school’s philosophy is to teach students to be independent and take ownership of their grades, teachers are required to notify a student’s dean if his or her grade drops dramatically during a quarter or if they have below a C+ in a class.

“If there’s a dramatic change [in a grade], I try to tell the kid and give the family a heads up before final grades come out,” Slattery said. “I also see final grades before they go home to families, and I compare them to what their trend looks like and what they got on the final.”

Nevertheless, many students believe their access to grades is limited and that they should be able to check their grades more often. They find that it can be difficult to keep track of their own progress in a class when they do not immediately receive feedback or grades on assignments. Additionally, as homework, quizzes and tests accumulate over a quarter, students have a harder time trying to calculate their own grades.

“I think students should be able to check their grades whenever they want to see how they’re doing in the class,” Lee said. “While some teachers have grades calculated and updated regularly for us to check whenever we want, some teachers don’t, which can be kind of frustrating.”

By the end of a quarter or semester, some students are even surprised by the grades they receive in a class.

“In English last year, the grades I got first semester versus the grades I got second semester were very different, so I didn’t really know what my final grade would be, especially because the grades I received were just letter grades instead of actual percentages,” Lee said.

According to school policy, the curriculum is the same for every class, and teachers will occasionally grade in teams to set standards for grading. However, especially in English courses, teachers still have the discretion and autonomy to choose their own books, lessons and teaching materials, as well as to decide on their own grading system.

“The school tries to strike a balance between making sure teachers don’t feel like they are being told how to grade or run a classroom and having some conformity,” Slattery said. “Actually, the faculty handbook gives teachers a lot of leeway, and the teachers decide what is a fair evaluation of that student’s performance. They do not necessarily have to go strictly by numbers.”

The school’s policy on grades gives teachers the final say in a student’s end-of-the-year grade, and they can give a grade that is different than the numerical value.

“I feel like most teachers round up rather than round down if they know that a kid is working hard,” Brendan Rose ’17 said. “The teachers are hard first quarter, but I feel like they reward kids who do care and show that they do care by coming into their office. [The end-of-year grade] usually works in the student’s favor rather than against them.”

Although students can set up meetings with teachers to discuss their grades, some students would rather not discuss them to avoid being seen as a nuisance or coming across as a student who only cares about GPA. Additionally, some students feel that it is hard to have an open conversation about grades with teachers.

“I feel like I’m bothering [teachers] and that I’m obsessing over a letter,” Lee said. “I don’t want to be known as that kid who only cares about grades, but at the same time, I need to know about my grades to assess how well I’m doing in a class and to figure out what I need to do to improve.”

While some students do believe that a more transparent grading system would alleviate stress, others think that it would distract students from the value of learning.

“Some kids might go overboard worrying and checking, but not having constant updates leaves more room for happy surprises at the end of the year,” Rose said. “I think [the current system] focuses more on learning because you aren’t constantly notified about your grade going up and down.”

Furthermore, a system where grades are more accessible would also allow parents to see the grades as well. This would make it possible for parents to become overly focused on each specific grade.

“Most people have a good idea of what their grades are, and I think that having teachers post grades online for every assignment would make students more focused on their grades than they already are,” Jenna Moustafa ’17 said. “Like at my old school, they posted grades online, and my parents and I would be checking grades all the time. Now that they’re not posted online, you can just focus on the work in the class and learning and not just the grade itself.”

For some, not knowing grades helps them learn and encourages them to meet with their teachers and establish a relationship with them.

“Though my initial reason for meeting with my teachers might be to find out my grades, I end up learning the material better from working with them,” Sean Jung ’16 said.