Discrepancies in English classes frustrate students

Students collaborate during a junior honors English class. Differences in grading within one level of an English class frustrate some students who take them. Photo by Ethan Roubenoff.
Students collaborate during a junior honors English class. Differences in grading within one level of an English class frustrate some students who take them. Photo by Ethan Roubenoff.

English classes have wide discrepancies in terms of grades, according to data from the 2012-2013 academic year provided to The Sagamore.

While Burchenal said the freedom afforded to teachers attracts them to Brookline, some students are frustrated by the disparities in the amount and grading of work among English courses of the same level.

According to grade data from the 2012-2013 school year, the range of class grade averages for Points of View, the freshman standard course, was 9.14 percentage points, with the highest class average being 86.25 and the lowest being 77.11. Responding to Literature, the freshman honors course, had class averages ranging from  88.67 to 82.14, a difference of 6.53 points.

Sophomore World Literature Standard classes ranged from 91.67 to 78.80, a difference of 12.87 points. Sophomore World Literature Honor classes ranged from 90.13 to 80.50, a difference of 9.63 points. According to the data given, one teacher had class averages of 89.00 and 90.14, while another had averages of 82.75, 82.14, and 82.14.

Junior American Literature Standard classes ranged from 86.00 to 75.44, a difference of 10.56 points. Junior American Literature Honor classes ranged from 92.38 to 86.50, a difference of 5.88 points. The Sagamore did not look at data for the different senior English courses.

For freshman, sophomore and junior classes, the greatest disparity was within sophomore standard classes with a difference of 12.87 points. The smallest range in class averages was within the junior honors level, with a difference of 5.88 points.

Tenth Grade Honors Final Grade Breakdown 2012-2013

“It would be possible to infer that difference between honor and standard grades may reflect work production on the part of students, as much as variation and standards by teachers, whereas variation within level, probably, this requires investigation,” Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator Gary Shiffman said when shown the data. “This could just be a hunch, that the variation is much more about teacher difference than the student difference.”

According to Burchenal, both freshman year and senior year courses have significant standardization measures created by teachers.

“The freshman team has had this experience where they’ve been working on one common assessment and they have a common rubric that they’ve used,” Burchenal said. “It’s been on the midyear exam for the last two years, and teachers grade other teachers’ exams, so you don’t grade your students in your own class, you’re grading somebody else’s students.”

There is also a standard rubric for the senior paper which helps guide the other grades’ courses, Burchenal said.

“Because we’ve established ‘Here’s what you need to do well to graduate from this high school,’ we use that rubric now nine through 12,” Burchenal said. “There is some variation on that rubric. So again, it’s not controlling for differences between Teacher A and Teacher B, but it’s giving a road map of: ‘Here are the things we think are important on the senior paper.’ It’s good if you start valuing them at a younger age, and so focusing more on those things in common.”

Kim Draggoo, English Teacher

However, according to Burchenal, the other teams have not done the same level of standardization.

“The other teams haven’t had quite that, just again for coincidental reasons, so there’s probably more variation in the other years than there is in freshman year English,” Burchenal said.

English teacher Ellen Lewis, who currently teaches Points of View, has taught all grade levels during her time at the high school. She helped guide the freshman team in creating the standardized assessment that was part of the freshman midyear exam. According to Lewis, the other grade levels might benefit from a common assessment.

“It’s the process of working with a team of teachers to determine what we value, really looking very closely at student work,” Lewis said. “So I think any time any group of teachers looks at student work and discusses how they see it you wind up hammering out what do you value, what do you think is important, and that was what was so key about this process.”

Lewis said she believes the same level of collaboration would be good for the rest of the department.

English teacher Rob Primmer, who teaches freshman and junior honors courses this year and has taught senior courses in the past, said freshman teachers have worked to make their grading transferable on both the midyear and in regular classroom assignments.

According to Primmer, this method of grading and collaboration allows teachers to determine what is important in each piece of writing and what they should be focusing on.

“It really coalesces what each teacher thinks is important about the writing so that it makes us either justify in a significant way, why this is so important, or in some ways kind of relax, to say, ‘Alright, I can see why this part has more prominence and I would weight this in such a way, and I wouldn’t necessarily give this as much value as this piece,’” Primmer said.

According to Primmer, that kind of work has been done on the junior paper in the past.

“I think the other people in our department who haven’t done this should go through that process and by doing that they would come a lot closer. I think grading would get more standardized, and I do think that’s a good thing, ultimately,” Lewis said.

The graph displayed above shows both the highest and lowest average grades for the English classes in each level for the 2012-2013 school year.
The graph displayed above shows both the highest and lowest average grades for the English classes in each level for the 2012-2013 school year. Graphic by Ethan Roubenoff.

In a survey conducted online by The Sagamore last year, 47 percent of students said English classes within a section are not graded at the same difficulty.

“They should make standards for grading, a common rubric for all the teachers to use. I feel like that wouldn’t be too hard,” one anonymous survey said.

Another survey said there should be more standardization “because it’s really unfair if some students try really hard for a good grade but they just have a hard teacher.”

Junior Isabel Ballard said while she thought the difficulty of her English class increased after freshman year, she felt prepared for her current English class. Ballard said the grading in her class this year is similar to that of last year.

Another surveyed student said differences between classes is inevitable.

“Honestly, different teachers teach in different ways, and I think this is acceptable,” the student said. “Especially with a subject as non-numerical as English, it is impossible to expect perfect consistency without oversimplifying a very nuanced set of criteria.”

Junior Esther Oh, currently in American Literature Honors, said she felt grading expectations were not clearly defined in her freshman and sophomore year classes.

“I feel like the teachers never really went over what they expect from the paper or what they really focus on grading. For example, like I got my paper back or something, I had to go on a conference with them because it was really vague what they want to see from me, because sometimes my teachers were like, ‘Oh, this is a personal paper, so I just want to hear your guys’ voices,’” Oh said. “But when they actually grade stuff, and I look at the criteria, I was just like, ‘But you never really mentioned anything like this, you never really kind of set any goals that you really want our class to make or achieve.’”

Oh said she spent time in each class adapting to the teacher’s grading style and succeeding in the certain writing styles each teacher valued. According to Oh, her sophomore year teacher taught her a style of writing introductory paragraphs that her junior year teacher disliked in essays.

“I feel like every single English teacher, they have different writing styles. I remember my freshman year I had to adjust to my teacher’s grading. I had to write something that she would like instead of actually writing my paper and developing my own voice,” Oh said.

Oh said she felt students across the grades would benefit from more specific criteria in grading.

“It’s kind of unfair how all English teachers are looking for different things,” Oh said. “I wish there was a certain specific criteria that teachers would work on for freshmen, sophomores, or juniors.”

Juliana Kaplan can be contacted at [email protected]

Multimedia created by Aaron Sege, Alex Friedman, Alua Noyan, Kate Finnerty, Rebecca Segal.