Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

What's in a Number: The Problem with Holistic Grading

Once upon a time, in a suburban St. Louis County high school almost thirty years ago, there studied a girl who couldn't seem to write an essay to save her life. She watched the papers come back. AP European History—D-. AP English—C. But owing to smaller class sizes and tenacious teachers who bled all over her paper with red ink, this girl began to see her mistakes. She tightened. She tweaked. She revised. She edited.

While she never got over a C+ in that European history class, once her English teacher read one of her essays aloud because it was the very best in the class. Suddenly, because of intensive writing coaching, that little girl—a.k.a. me—learned the art of the wordsmith. Writing no longer was a grade, but a destination.

Unfortunately, in today's classroom, in an attempt to be fair and in an attempt to be neutral, teachers have moved to holistic scoring. This means that on an essay, a student receives a number from a score range. This range can be anything from 1-4 to 1-9 depending on the assessment and scoring rubric. The idea behind holistic scoring is that no matter who scores the essay, since the grader is using set criteria with which to grade, the scores will not vary or deviate from scorer to scorer. Thus, no matter if I'm your English teacher or if it's the guy down the road, we will score your essay exactly the same.

To get teachers in sync, training involves hours of reading essays and communal scoring. The process is rather mind numbing but effective. By the end, everyone is pretty clear on what a 3 paper looks like and so on.

The nice part about holistic scoring is that it's fast. Since the scorer isn't editing or making suggestions, the scorer can read the essay in about half the time. (Well, at least I do.) The student receives the score and then is told to go to the scoring guide and correlate from there. While this is probably the only way the AP, ACT writing and SAT writing scorers could ever get through reading the number of essays they have to score without wanting to kill themselves, in a classroom, holistic scoring without feedback becomes dangerous and destructive.

After all, what really is the difference between "Argument essays demonstrate the ability to construct an adequate argument" and "Argument essays demonstrate the ability to present an argument"? On the AP English Language and Composition test it's the difference between and 5, 6 and 7. Yet to the untrained student, it's like asking him to see the forest for the trees. While students may understand what they did wrong, for after all there's that sentence that says "Excellent use of supporting details" versus "Satisfactory use of supporting details" (or something similar), the key component to improving student writing is teaching how to improve the writing.

A scoring guide assesses, not teaches. Yet in an effort to save time, too many teachers are using it as a teaching tool, passing back papers with numbers on top and few, if any, comments. These teachers somehow expect their students to magically improve their writing by figuring out what they did wrong from reading a scoring guide.

This strategy is about as effective as me telling you to get in a pool and tread water fully clothed without making any splashes. While not impossible, it's pretty darn hard. 

Writing is a skill that takes practice, but practice without feedback is pointless. All we do is flog kids and teach them writing sucks. They are up against some mystical piece of paper that becomes the Holy Grail—yet that piece of paper doesn't explain how to move from one level to the next. That's a teacher's job and as teachers, we must do it even if it means spending hours scoring essays the old fashioned way with edits and comments and bleeding ink everywhere.

Don't think it doesn't pay off. My intro to journalism students hate me for at least a month when they first start writing. I ink everything from passive voice to Associated Press style errors. Yet at the same time I provide additional exercises to help reinforce concepts. I make them write and rewrite until they perfect a paper—it's not just write one, get a grade and move on. I make suggestions both in writing and orally as I conference with them individually. That "see me" written on their paper means that I'm going to hone home in on their personal errors and teach them how to fix them. By six or so weeks in, suddenly I have really good writers. The grumbling ceases, and the kids don't think I'm an ogre any longer. They've figured out what to do and success breeds success. There's not so much ink staining their papers because suddenly those leads that were so impossible are easier and interesting (rather than boring). Their transitions are stronger. Passive voice vanishes and style errors cease. Through personal learning they've begun to master the material and excel. It's like exercising—if you keep with it and push yourself, you'll whip your body into shape.

Professional authors often have critique partners who read everything and offer feedback and suggestions on how the story could be improved. Editors clean up any copy errors and offer feedback. In a sense, it often takes a village to publish the high-quality writing you read daily in newspapers, magazines and books.

Don't students deserve this same coaching? They are learners, not pros. More than anyone, they need individual attention and feedback in order to grasp elusive concepts. They need comments, not numbers, in order to learn. Let's not simply assess them endlessly without supporting their learning with tailored suggestions on how to improve as writers. While it may take 15 essays before writing an essay becomes second nature, 15 essays (with nothing but numbers on top) is simply an exercise in futility, not learning. So ink up those papers. Gut for grammar. Poke holes in punctuation. Skewer that style. And then tell them how to fix it all and make it better. Be Jillian Michaels on the Biggest Loser. Give them tough love, not vague feedback. The results are worth it.

Click here to read more articles from Teachers at Work.

Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.