April 25, 2004

Foolish and sensible consistencies in grading

The practical problem with reading more than 10 or 15 student exams or papers is that one has to balance the need for consistency with the need for sanity. Even with a good bit of experience and a grading scheme (or rubric, or what-have-you—a set of guidelines for grading), there is always the good chance that one's standards will change from the beginning of a batch to the end. As a colleague tells me, sometimes the paper that you cracked down on for minor factual problems looks a lot better by the bottom of the pile. Conscientious teachers are aware of that and will reread some papers to make sure that the grading standards haven't changed.

But the deeper grading problem is a simpler physical one: reading student work carefully is exhausting. When the exams are handwritten, one can enjoy the neat print-like work of some students but struggle through other work that has overlapping curlicues and daggers of ink or just a muddle that one must puzzle out. Did the student write "curdle" or "coddle"? More fundamentally, you're trying to figure out whether the student understood concepts and can explain them clearly. You don't want students to regurgitate whole phrases (or at least I don't), but a student who puts an idea in her or his own words may also be mangling those ideas beyond recognition. It's a balancing act, and that act tires me out.

The undergraduate exams I'm now grading are all paragraphs in response to eleven questions. So, instead of making a judgment on one or two essays per student, I'm doing so on five or ten times as many. I think it gives me a better sense of what students have learned in this course than long essays, but it's more mental work, believe me.

The practical solution for me has turned out to be partially batch processing, partially blind grading of individual questions. I take a batch of papers (say, 10 or 11) and go through them one or two questions at a time. That theoretically gives me some question-by-question consistency within a batch of papers while still letting me see progress while I work. For example, I have the white-paper exams queued up this morning, having turned the first sheets over last night, so that I'll only know student identities after grading questions 3-11 and then turning to the first sheet and the first two questions. I should finish this batch over four or five hours, but I'll take breaks between questions.

All right: enough procrastinating. Time to start grading this batch.

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Posted in Teaching at 7:17 AM (Permalink) |

April 24, 2004

Exam grading

And for the next week, almost everything goes overboard while I read student work. Yesterday I had a bunch of meetings, and then the new laptop had some problems (a memory chip needed reseating), but after lunch it's time to crack down and start reading the undergraduate exams with some discipline (of my mind).

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Posted in Teaching at 11:52 AM (Permalink) |

April 15, 2004

Kentucky points the way

When I wrote "Alternatives for Florida's Assessment and Accountability System" (available in Word or PDF, in a new window) for the Reform Florida briefs on educational policy in the state, I hadn't known that Kentucky requires educational audits for schools labeled low-performing. That had been one of my key recommendations, and I wish I had been aware of Kentucky beforehand. I'm not sure if there's been solid research on Kentucky's practice, but I'll check before I turn the briefs into any article(s).

Sometimes, that's the risk with writing policy stuff under time pressure: you can't know everything that's happening. But Kentucky's example at least is that.

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Posted in Research at 9:24 AM (Permalink) |

April 11, 2004

The pledge case

Like many observers of the Supreme Court, I am assuming that the court will reverse the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and rule for the school district in Elk Grove v. Newdow. If it does so by accepting the argument that the words "under God" are a form of ceremonial deism, it will be accepting the argument of many defenders of "under God" that the words are largely inconsequential in a legal sense—even while defenders insist that the words are essential in a political sense.

I suppose I could pull out the standard journalistic probe, "So if the words are inconsequential as religious expression, what's the problem with removing them?" But that quip belies the fundamental cultural conflict over religious expression in public life. Those who approve of religious expression in public (including on public grounds) see it either as an inherent part of our cultural heritage or as a beneficent resource that shouldn't offend anyone (like a coffee pot in a work breakroom). Those who disapprove of religious expression in public see it as pervasive and coercive (like elevator music), marginalizing them and their beliefs as unimportant.

Thus far, the courts have avoided facing this conflict by resorting to a legal fiction—some religious expression is not religious. Thus, Christians can put trees in public places as long as they don't have stars or mangers, somehow becoming "seasonal displays" instead of the tacit religious symbols that everyone recognizes. The words "under God" don't really mean "under God," somehow, being emptied of their content over 50 years—even though millions of Americans are livid at the possibility that they might be stricken from the morning ritual in thousands of schools.

This legal desanctification means nothing to ordinary people, and it's confusing. "Under God" will probably be ruled acceptable in the officially-sponsored Pledge of Allegiance, but officially-sponsored prayer isn't. One Christian translation of the Ten Commandments can't be on state grounds, but "God save this honorable court" is a perfectly fine way to open sessions of the U.S. Supreme Court. The legal fiction of ceremonial deism and seasonal displays evade the deeper cultural conflict. Maybe that's right—courts aren't supposed to resolve all conflicts.

Maybe it reflects the curious mixing of religion and other influences in society. Is it a watering-down of theological significance to commercialize so many holidays (Easter to some extent, Christmas to a much greater extent?). That's a question for the religiously-inclined to answer, but I would definitely understand considerably mixed feelings that the court allows "Christmas Lite" displays.

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Posted in Random comments at 7:20 AM (Permalink) |