Following the Curve: Teachers’ grade distribution are no longer shared amongst other teachers


Chetana Ramaiyer

A previous version of this article mispelled “Standard based grading system”.

Every Wednesday morning, many MVHS students sleep in — savoring any extra second of sleep they can get, enjoying their late start, seeing as their first class of the day doesn’t start until 9:25. The teachers on the other hand have to arrive on campus roughly two hours earlier, at 7:35 a.m. Instead of sleeping in, the teachers meet with their Professional Learning Community (PLC), which is a group of teachers who typically teach the same course. They discuss essential learnings, common formative assessments and student progress.

Once every other month, during these Wednesday morning meetings, the entire department meets to discuss important issues, including grade distributions. At the end of each grading period, students are given a reminder of their grades through progress reports. Although this is common information, 36% of students didn’t know that teachers are also given a reminder of their students’ grades through their grade distributions. Administration compiles and runs reports to compare the grade distributions of all the teachers in each department. These grade distribution spreadsheets are emailed to all the teachers in that department. That is, up until the recent grading period, when the administration decided to stop sending these distributions out.

“We’re trying to do some discussions about maybe standardizing how they’re shared amongst departments. There’s no really standard or expectation set with [the grade distributions] … We held back on sharing them until we had a chance to talk about how they’re currently used by each department and how should they be used,” Assistant Principal Michael Hicks said.

This past Tuesday, on Dec. 6, all of the departments leads met with the administration to discuss the sharing of grade distributions. They talked about how these grade distributions are currently used and discussed what to do with them moving forward.

When sharing grade distributions, it became apparent to the teachers that there is variation in the grade distributions of teachers teaching the same subject. According to junior Albert Yang, this is a problem.

“We should have a more standardized distribution [of grades],” Yang said. “It could provide for more ease of stress and more learning.”

Yang has experienced teachers in the past who, compared to others teaching the same subject, have set different standards. 86% of MVHS students have dealt with this issue as well. AP Chemistry teacher Kavita Gupta agrees with Yang in that she believes students taking the same course with the same skill level should receive a similar grade, despite who is teaching the course.

“From where I sit, either as a parent or as an educator, I feel [that the variation in grade distribution] is an issue,” Gupta said. “If they are getting exactly the same credit through FUHSD [and] getting the same diploma, then how is it fair?”

Although she believes it’s unfair, Gupta also recognizes that for teachers, setting a universal standard across classes is harder than it seems.

“I think there’s so much confusion among teachers about the purpose, role or criteria for grading,” Gupta said. “Are we grading for knowledge, the content? Are we grading for their study skills? Are we grading for their citizenship? What are we even grading for? … With so much confusion, I really think we need to evolve and come up with a system that works for our students and keeps them motivated and engaged for learning.”

Gupta says this confusion is what leads to variation in grade distributions among teachers teaching the same classes. According to World Core and Mythology/Folklore teacher Jireh Tanabe, the first step is to have conversation.

“[This confusion] requires a conversation that we haven’t been able to have,” Tanabe said. “I think that right now we should be asking questions rather than looking for answers and trying to figure out [what] they actually mean because I believe questions are more valuable than answers.”

Teachers themselves have found different ways to avoid these discrepancies. Gupta used to work with former AP Chemistry teacher Mary Murphy to ensure consistency. They would grade all formal assessments together to ensure that the students were receiving similar treatment, despite having different teachers.

“I think then the teachers have to really talk to each other, have common assessments [and] have essential learnings,” Gupta said. “And to me personally, if we are totally in a growth mindset, standard space grading is not a bad way to look at things.”

The standard based grading system that Gupta referred to is a system that grades students’ mastery of skills. Many teachers adopt the ideals of standard space grading. For example, Tanabe offers students low risk opportunities initially to give them a chance to practice before testing them on these skills. Similarly, Gupta believes in the idea of retakes as a second chance.

“If I don’t give them a retake or don’t retest them in some way, how do I ensure that they learn?” Gupta said. “For me learning is non-negotiable … [The amount of] time taken to learn is not [important].”

Among all the ideas proposed to fix this problem, having a conversation always resurfaces. Hicks thinks teachers should discuss and come to a consensus about what the expectations of the students should be. According to Hicks, this will ensure that all the students get equal opportunities.

“You can get closer with grade distribution, you’re never going to get it perfect, or ideally matching and I don’t think that’s necessarily the goal,” Hicks said. “But you can imagine if [teachers are]… working together with what’s most important and how [they are] going to measure and what that means, then you’re going to see some natural alignment with grade distribution.”

Hicks suggests that sharing this data is imperative to move forward.

“It takes a little bit of putting yourself in a vulnerable state to share that information with your colleagues,” Hicks said. “[Teachers] really have to build those levels and layers of trust to be able to have those conversations about things such as grades … The hope is, as time marches on, we get more comfortable using that data to facilitate those conversations.”

According to Gupta, for the benefit of the students as well as the fairness classes at MVHS, sharing these grade distributions are vital.

“If there is a vast grade difference… [and] different teacher’s grades are different, then we need to feel vulnerable,” Gupta said. “We need to understand that there is a problem Recognition of a problemis the first step.”

However, Gupta also recognizes teachers are also inherently different. They all have varying personalities and there’s no way to control that.

“I believe that… the mastery that you demonstrate should reflect your grade,” Tanabe said. “If someone grades differently, then that’s just something that you have to get used to because that’s what happens in life. Life isn’t fair … If everything was fair, we’d always get our way. It’s not as heterogeneous as we think it is. So I think it requires a conversation to happen and collaboration to happen on an ongoing level.”

Tanabe agrees with Gupta in that all people have different ways of learning and take different amounts of time to understand the material. Teachers can’t make their grading standards exactly the same because there are many factors that play into it.

“They’re different people and they have different expectations of you and so it’s learning to adjust in that way,” Tanabe said. “I think if we’re completely the same, completely lockstep … why do we need live human teachers? Why don’t we just have robots teach? Why doesn’t everybody take a Khan Academy class? Here, you do have real, live, people who are different and that’s the beauty of teaching. It shouldn’t be the same because we don’t expect [students] to be the same.”