An Investigative Exploring Grading Disparities at Andover

93 percent of students believe that grading disparities exist between classes of the same department at Andover, according to the 2018-2019 State of the Academy (SOTA). To help combat this issue, the Working Group for Grading and Assessment, a group of 13 faculty members, is pursuing a two-year investigation into testing policy and tangentially, grading disparities. The group aims to ensure that fair and equitable grading is instituted across all academic disciplines, according to Rajesh Mundra, Dean of Studies.

“We have been thinking about grading and assessment and we are going to be thinking about it at lots of different levels. As we gathered data from courses or from transcripts or in other ways, if grading disparities is actually something that is concerning within departments… then I do know that our group would want to look at that in more detail,” said Mundra.

According to Alyssa Muffaletto ’21, she feels that although all subjects have grading disparities, the English, Math, and World Language departments are the most susceptible.

“For instance, some English teachers are known for having the hardest grades, and I’ve been told that they don’t grade above a 4, but there are a lot of teachers that will give you at least a 5 and that’s for everyone. That is such a great grading disparity despite it being the same assignment and possibly the same quality of work,” said Muffaletto.

Serena Lee ’22 thinks that Andover’s competitive atmosphere, based on constant comparisons of worth to each other, magnifies the impact of grading disparities on the mindset of students. Lee believes that a student’s grades are affected by their teacher’s personality.

“I think that humanities departments have especially large grading disparities because it’s all about your teacher’s opinion on how they write and each person obviously prefers a different type of [writing style]. Of course, there are base expectations but past that, it’s really up to interpretation. It can make someone’s life much harder or much easier as they might not be paired up with the right teacher to help them,” said Lee.

According to Elizabeth Meyer, World Languages Department Chair, the lack of enforced standardization of the current grading system’s foundational guidelines allows teachers what she feels is too much individual liberty to grade according to their personal education philosophy. This results in contradictory preferences that cause discrepancies in the metric that students are graded by, thus causing confusion among students.

In an email to The Phillipian, Meyer wrote, “There is a lot of subjectivity in grading policies–too much, I believe. Some teachers boost grades as a reward for effort, while some believe grades should reflect only content knowledge; some give points for test corrections, offer make-ups, extend deadlines, allow extra credit, etc. Some inflate grades as a well-meant response to the anxiety of their students. Other teachers believe that it is in the students’ best interest to assess them strictly on their knowledge and skills, and to hold them accountable to deadlines.”

Phillip Ko ’22 believes that because of all the implicit biases that teachers carry, there is no true way to combat grading disparities.

“We each have our own personal biases, the teachers too, and it really isn’t something they can just shut off and be a grading machine. They are looking for criteria, but there is some more human stuff that goes behind that when it comes to grading,” said Ko.

Despite this concern, numerous departments have begun conducting a variety of experiments to understand grading differences. According to Mundra, some courses attempt a blind grading activity where the name of students are not included on assessments; the teachers then switch papers and explain how they would each grade the paper. The purpose of the dialogue is to encourage teachers to gain exposure to divergent grading preferences that they may want to consider and manifest in their class. The English Department has undertaken such enterprises since last year, according to Stephaine Curci, English Department Chair.

“Every time we grade essays as a group, we find that we are aligned and only off by 1/3 of a grade or so (the difference between a 4 and a 4+, for instance). Much of that has to do with what that particular class’s recent focus has been,” wrote Curci in an email to The Phillipian.

Curci continued, “I’d love to see us more explicitly tie our assessments and grades to standards. Students might find that overall grades drop, however. Students might also be surprised to know that there is less variation in grades across sections than they think.”

According to Mundra, effort or amount of work put in cannot equate to a good grade, despite popular student belief. Instead, Mundra encourages students to use the systems put in place to dispute an unfair grade and advocate a more just assessment policy.

“I would say that sometimes students may have incomplete information about different courses even within the same department. I would say that if they really feel like their work is not represented, is unfairly graded then there are mechanisms for students to have a conversation with the department chair or with the Dean of Studies and bring up their case, like this was not fair,” said Mundra.