What’s in a grade?

Henry Level, Guest Writer

Okay, class. First quarter grades are in, so raise your hand if you can tell me what your grade means.
I got an F, so it means I’m not smart. Unlikely.
I earned an A, so I tried harder than everyone. Not necessarily.
Well, I got a B, so it means I’m a decent human being, right? No. But you might be.
Simply put, your grade is a reflection. Of what? Of the effort you put in combined with the knowledge and skills you take out. This might vary to some degree based on the subject—for instance, in P.E. more weight is placed on the effort since A’s and B’s are not reserved for the fastest and strongest. In a content-based subject like math, effort is a factor, but usually test scores play a larger role in the end grade.
Sometimes students don’t understand this. Why can’t it all be about effort?
I once had a student turn in a final draft of an essay. It was mediocre. She earned a C. She was upset. I should get a better grade because I tried really hard on this essay! I sighed. I’m glad she tried really hard on the essay, but I can’t just grade an essay for the effort. Trust me, it’s every English teacher’s dream to place each essay on a super sensitive digital scale and write a grade based on the weight of the papers. Ooh, three ounces? That’s a B+! But the purpose of the assignment is in the quality, not the quantity. I’ve had several students tell me how many hours they spent on the essay, as if that should also factor into their grade. But what do they want me to do? Spy on them while they type their essays at night?
That’s creepy.
Of course, I don’t mean to depreciate effort. You should try hard on your essays. But understand what real effort looks like. It isn’t just total hours spent on the final draft—it includes the research, the outline, the notes taken three weeks earlier during the lesson on topic sentences. Spending six hours on the final draft while listening to Taylor Swift and periodically checking your Instagram account as you simultaneously binge episodes of Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix—well, that takes a different kind of effort. Real effort impacts the grade by impacting the quality of the work itself.
Just as a basketball player who shoots free throws every day should improve his free throw percentage, the writer who puts time and practice into the craft should write a better essay. But if the basketball player misses, she shouldn’t say to the ref, “I think I should get two points because I tried really hard to make those free throws!” Or should she?