Grading: “When in Rome,” or “Show ’em How Its Done?”
I’ve been watching some foreign teachers screw their students (and themselves) over regarding grading (especially at the university level) for quite some time. If someone decides to stand on principle at the risk of losing their job, that’s one thing, but more commonly the victims are the students. Often it appears to me that the problem has roots in cultural differences, and the inevitably different expectations that follow those differences.
At my university (I am a Master’s level lecturer), the university requires that no more than 40% of a class be given an A0 or A+ (there are no A- grades). Up to 50% of students can get a B0 or B+, and 10% get everything else (C, D, F). The university firmly maintains a particularly shaped curve this way. Its not the way a grading distribution usually looks at an American university, but that is beside the point: we’re in Korea. Students are assigned a raw score which is converted to a percentage grade from 0 to 99. American teachers are used to a system whereby 90-100=A, 80-89=B, etc. Customarily, Korean professors will rank the students by raw score and assign the top 40% A’s. This is the norm at my university (to give out the maximum number of top grades allowable), and many (if not all) universities across Korea.
So far, so good, right? Sure, until you get a foreign lecturer who decides their system is better. The person I replaced did this. If the top two students got 92’s, and everyone else got 89 or below, then those two students got A0’s, according to the common American formula. Everyone else got a B+ or below (according to how they stacked up in the American system). Students were angry about this, and rightfully so.
Why do I side with the students? Because this is Korea, and these students are competing with each other for jobs in the Korean market. If one foreign teacher is grading on her/his own standard, that teacher is hurting the competitiveness of those students. By taking some other teacher’s class, they could avoid an unfair grade (assigned due to cultural ignorance) which hurts their GPA.
Let’s take this wholly into American culture to see it from another angle. My father was a sailor in the US Navy for twenty years. I remember a conversation we once had about the evaluations that enlisted men get from officers. He spoke about a problem that sometimes cropped up. You’d get a brand new junior officer doing his first or second set of evals, who didn’t understand Navy culture. I don’t know about today, but when my father served, there was such inflation in the evals that a maximum score (5.0) in each area was absolutely required for advancement in most occupational specialties (called “ratings” in the Navy; for example, my father’s rating was Aviation Electronics Technician). The evals were designed in such a way that a perfect score equated to “no problems.” You’d read a sailor’s evals, across different categories (leadership, military bearing, physical fitness, technical expertise, etc.) and they would all read 5.0 down the line. If you saw a 4.8, it indicated a problem. Now this wasn’t a written rule, it was the Navy’s unwritten custom, and was understood by everyone. When an officer in one unit read your eval, she/he had the same conclusions about a 4.8 as an officer in another unit. When there are 3200 Seamen eligible for advancement, and the Navy can only advance 800 this quarter, officers use everything they can to differentiate those sailors and promote only the most qualified. So back to the brand new junior officer. He’s doing his first set of evals, and he says “Well, Seaman Jones, your Military Bearing is good, but I believe nobody is perfect, and there is always room for improvement, so I’m giving you a 4.9.” This officer, through his personal philosophy (and ignorance of Navy culture), has just delayed Seaman Jones’ promotion to Petty Officer 3rd Class for three to six months. The same Seaman would have received a 5.0 by any other officer.
This is what you’re doing to your students when you decide that their efforts are not “A” quality although they are among the top of the class. You are imposing your value system because it satisfies you/is what you’re comfortable with/are a stubborn bastard, and you are ultimately misrepresenting your students’ performance in your class (because maybe the 5th best student in your class is now sporting a B+ instead of the A+ she/he would have gotten in any Korean instructor’s class with the same performance) to future employers, graduate admissions committees, and others. It is ethnocentric, and it is wrong. When an employer or admissions counselor sees that B+, they aren’t going to know that the applicant in front of them worked hard, learned a lot, and outperformed a vast majority of the class but was subjected to non-customary grading criteria. You’re adding your own meaning to someone else’s language when you do that.
“But Korean higher education is ranked the lowest out of all the OECD countries,” you cry! That’s a problem the Korean government and Korean society is going to have to figure out over time. Do you think by using a foreign grading standard with your students, you’re going to help with that? The education environment you see is what exists. For you to stand alone, you’re only hurting your students to make a statement that nobody will hear or understand. Why would you do that?
If you disagree, then I implore you: At least, AT LEAST disclose to your students your grading standards on their first day, so they have the option to either drop your class (and take a class with a grading system they are comfortable with) or stay in your class and consciously accept the possibility of a low grade due to non-customary grading criteria.