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At the end of the year, teachers worry about making the grade, too

Grade time. A tough time for students - but no fun for teachers, either. Pupils may think that we relish our power to grade them. We don't.

As each semester wound down during my years as a teacher, I would get desperate notes from my writing students: "I tried my best on this paper"; "This is late - please don't take points off"; "I don't think spelling should matter." What should count?

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None of the above, if I could choose. I taught for the love of writing, and wanted students to love it, too. Grades skewed them toward pleasing the teacher and away from speaking the truth.

Of course, some students' writing did please me, and others', not at all. I like prose that's spare, like my own. I like students who take my advice. I was never fond of those who sit in the back. I'm a front-row sitter myself, and assumed that back-sitters want to work on homework for another class.

My assumptions weren't always correct. One student hid in the back corner of the classroom all semester, rarely looking up. I found out why only by chance. For an assignment, she wrote an advice piece on how to overcome panic attacks, using her own struggle as an example. Chagrined, I resolved to judge no behavior without sufficient evidence.

Yet I couldn't help enjoying my more talkative students. Teaching, after all, is theater. We who perform in front of a class need audience response. I'm grateful for every student who made eye contact, and mystified by those who didn't. I liked those who laughed at my jokes.

When grade time came, however, I would set aside personal reactions. To test my own objectivity, I noted down the grades I gave on the basis of my impression during the semester. I put those aside and lined up each objective factor: grades on first and last drafts, number of assignments completed, class attendance, quiz results. I applied my mathematical model to the data and came up with a grade.

When I compared my impressionistic grade with my mathematically derived one, the differences often dismayed me.

The student with the smallest yield was also the best writer. One student whose grade was low held down a 40-hour-a-week job that left little time for research, much less proofreading or working on style. My most inept student rewrote every paper twice, earning a slightly better grade each time. Should I add in these factors?

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I would wonder: Should I give a higher grade to "X" for her polished paper, or to "M whose third rewrite never reached the heights of "X's" first draft? Should I reward "Z" for keeping class discussion lively, penalizing those who stay silent, though they surely had a right to do so?

Their careers were on the line, their chances for graduate school, their futures as writers.

In the end, it was me or them. My grades would be due at high noon. I had to hand them in on time or miss my department's bureaucratic deadline and get a lousy grade myself.

I'd remember the teacher's fantasy grading method: Just throw the students' papers down the stairs and grade them in the order they land.

But wait - how would I decide? Would I give the A to the papers that fall closest to me and are the easiest to pick up? Or those that float gracefully and land farthest away?

Barbara Beckwith is a former teacher of writing who lives in Cambridge, Mass.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor