By Max Marinelli (Editor-in-Chief, ‘22)
During the four years I’ve written for FOCUS, our school’s policy on closed gradebooks has often been atop my mind when brainstorming possible article topics. When gradebooks have been most prevalent in my thoughts, though, they typically have found themselves there due to overwhelmingly negative situations, and I never wanted to write an opinion piece out of frustration. Now that I'm a second-semester senior, I feel qualified to give an unbiased answer to the following question. How can it be possible that total censorship of grades, established on the precedent that access to such grades will induce more stress than relief, actually leads to increased anxiety during the weeks preceding the release of semester reports? (Note that the debate over open versus closed gradebooks has proven highly controversial throughout my highschool experience, so please understand that there is no single “right” answer. I am merely voicing my opinions and outlining possible solutions I feel could address the issues I see with our current policies.)
Before I begin addressing the major problem I’ve experienced with closed gradebooks, I need to highlight the areas where our current system thrives. I must confess that, from September–November, and February–April, a closed-gradebook system has largely benefitted me. During the first three months of either semester, with no looming threat of semester reports, providing constantly updated access to grades would be distracting at best and detrimental at worst. To focus on learning in the absence of a fully opened gradebook—and in the absence of the competitive atmosphere that class rankings can create—is a blessing that I do not take for granted. I wholeheartedly agree with Friends’ Central’s decision not to have class rankings and official GPAs; we as students should be working together and comparing our success to nothing but our self-expectations, not working to one-up each other and ascend proverbial ranks. Thus, I do not take issue with FCS’s policies regarding the elimination of cut-throat, grade-centric competition. Rather, I find that the problem with closed gradebooks stems from the disconnect caused by a lack of awareness of one’s grades in the weeks preceding the release of semester reports.
A disconnect between a student’s perception of their semester or full-year grades and their actual grades can arise from two different scenarios. The first is when a teacher consistently fails to meet the expectation that smaller assignments are to be graded and reported in approximately one week and bigger assignments are to follow suit in two weeks. Teachers are people too! I understand that better than nearly any student, as both my parents are educators themselves. So, while abnormally large assignments such as the Junior Paper may warrant more time to grade, and personal emergencies can understandably delay grading, I see no justification for teachers to routinely return assignments a month after they were due. Some teachers even release a majority of their grades in the last week of a semester. For English and world language courses that often offer opportunities for revisions, grading delays have direct negative impacts on students' performances. Simply put, if a delay in the release of grades does not allow a reasonable amount of time for a student to complete a revision, then there is no point in offering such revisional opportunities at all. Even in courses outside of English and world languages, releasing grades long after the class has moved on from a particular subject does not let students know if they should be meeting with a teacher outside of class until it is too late. It should not be forgotten that the definition of an “ideal” or “targeted” grade can widely vary from student to student, and while it is unhealthy for students to expect perfection of themselves, certain students may want to meet with a teacher after receiving grades in the B-range. Thus, to only prioritize a timely notification to students with failing grades and/or grades below a B-minus is disingenuous, as it can harm the students who are chasing the A-level grades that are necessary for admission to many selective institutions—this is a reality that must be accepted whether we like it or not. Due to this, significant and consistent delays in the release of grades hurt students for various reasons. As of the release of this article, the return time for grades can widely vary from teacher to teacher, so regulating the timeline for the upload of individual grades to Canvas seems like a simple and effective solution that would help teachers hold themselves accountable while also allowing students to report prolonged lapses to the administration if necessary.
The second factor that leads to the aforementioned disconnect ties more directly to closed gradebooks. This factor is the reality that the grade that appears on semester reports can not be accurately calculated from the analytics available to students on Canvas. Unfortunately, adding up all of one’s graded assignments and averaging them does not give a student a concrete idea of what grade will show up on their report card—even if it did, calculating such averages myself sounds markedly more stressful than being able to access my average with the click of a button. The difference between the grade on a semester report and an average calculated on Canvas could result from a variety of factors, such as teachers weighing assignments unequally, not reporting all of their grades to Canvas, or factoring in homework and other assignments that may be “graded for completion.” With all of these cases, even the most aware students could open their report and see a grade out of line with what they expected. Receiving an A instead of an A+ is minor, but in the case where a student receives a C- after expecting a C (as well as other comparable costly discrepancies), college admissions and scholarships are on the line.
The solution to bridging this gap, in my eyes, is to take an approach somewhere in the middle of fully open and completely closed gradebooks. Having grade books that update by the minute can cause unnecessary stress and obsession, something that everyone can agree we should be attempting to avoid. Perhaps gradebooks should remain closed until mid-semester reports come out, as there is no pressure for a time-constrained push to raise a grade. During the second half of the semester, though, students deserve to know if they should be going the extra mile to raise their grade in a specific class or two. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that an 87% average (a B) can be raised to a 90% average (an A-) in the last month of a semester-long course if a student knows they should be kicking things into the next gear. If that student falsely believes they have a 90% average to begin with, they may not read that extra-credit book or revise the B-graded essay they wrote last week. The difference between an A- and a B, as well as a B and a C+, at least to some students, is far beyond trivial. Thus, I believe that, for the second half of a semester, class averages should be updated and made available to a student on a bi-weekly basis (perhaps every second Friday afternoon, to mitigate the number of students meeting with teachers after updates by providing them the weekend to process). This would prevent obsession while still providing a near-accurate representation of reality to a student. It also eliminates the awkwardness of having to repeatedly request a teacher to reveal your grades—no student wants to feel like a burden, and I suspect few teachers want to spend their free time hosting a gradebook showcase.
In short, when it comes to gradebooks, I believe Friends’ Central is doing it right… kind of. Grades should be hidden to kick off a semester, and even as it winds to a close they should not be an ever-updating, stress-inducing entity. Canvas is set up in such a way that teachers can freely control access to course grades, so releasing access to grades at regular intervals in the six or so weeks before the release of reports would be both realistic and—in my opinion—effective. Friends’ Central students deserve to avoid the pressures of class rankings and the angst caused by having up-to-the-minute averages thrown in their faces, and the administration has thus far done a remarkable job in delivering just that. Students also deserve to have the knowledge and opportunity to have an accurate picture of their grades at the tail-end of the semester so that, if they so choose, they can budget their time and energy most effectively to achieve the grades they wish to see on their upcoming reports. Right now, this is unattainable in some courses and with certain teachers for a multitude of reasons. My question is simple: “Why can’t students have both of these liberties?” By taking heed of my suggestions above, I believe that my simple question can be met with a simple answer: “Students can have both, and they should.” I hope that this article plants the seed for a discussion among students and faculty alike that will lead to changes for future classes.