English 521:
Composition Theory and Pedagogy

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Dilemmas in Assessment

by Erin Coon

Being a new teacher of English, I find the assessment of compositions to be a concept I question and struggle with on a regular basis. Having consulted several colleagues, mentors, administrators, and fellow graduate students, I have come to the conclusion that there is no easy answer to this tedious yet ever important question. While there are many inlets and outlets to this dilemma, for the sake of time I will touch on only three. While all three are very different in terms of concepts, rituals, and conducts, they all come together to one common goal - helping students express themselves in terms of writing.


While assessment can give students, parents, and administrators a view of where a student stands in terms of achievement, one must always remember that the grade is subjective. There is no right or wrong answer in English, as there is in math or other quantitative areas of study. The basis of “a grade” depends upon a student’s ability to choose a course of thought and convey it accurately and convincingly in written form. The subjectivity falls in how the teacher interprets or responds to the ideas and supporting information. For example, during my first venture as a student teacher, I was given the task of grading “free choice” essays. The students were given free range of the subject matter, and were told to write an insightful and poignant essay on the topic of their choice. After grading the papers, my mentor sat with me and we discussed some of the grades I had given for several of the students’ papers. Upon glancing briefly at the comments I had made and the grades I had given, my mentor began asking direct questions as to why I would grade certain papers one way, but would assign a different grade to others that were quite similar. As she went on to read through other papers, she would agree with some of my grades, but strongly disagree with others. I found this interesting because, while we were both reading the same essays, we were focusing on different points or concepts, which shaded our perception of the piece as a whole.

In retrospect, I believe that afternoon spent rereading essays with my mentor was one of the best teaching practices that I have come across. Once in a while, teachers needed to refocus their grading instincts by, in effect, orally defending their stance on grading policies. While teachers may not agree on conceptual validity and thought processes of their students, they are forced to see the opposite and contradictory side that perhaps has been overlooked.

The Red Pen Epidemic

Students are allergic to the ever-horrific red pen. One glance at a paper with one little splotch of red - even if the splotch is found to read Nice Job! - the student, at first glance, feels he or she is doomed to fail. To a student, red is the sign of danger. Red represents the blood, sweat, and tears that the student poured out over the piece and the blood that will be shed when he or she brings home a bad grade.

While observing classrooms over the past four years, I have learned to recognize the humped shoulder nervous response to the handing back of papers marked with red marker, red pen, red pencil - red anything. It is because of this observation that I have thrown out all red pens for the purpose of revising and grading. During class workshops, my students are provided with multi-colored pens - pink, green, purple, and turquoise. While these colors are very visible in the context of blue or black print, they also are less harsh. I also grade and comment in these colors. The stigma of grading in bright colors rather than red, I believe allows students to concentrate and reflect on my comments rather than the harshness and definiteness set by the standards of the red pen. While I have tried grading with red pen, I believe students are more open to comments and slight corrections - made both by myself and peer editors - when they are written in colors other than red.

Nurture verses Academia

Another concept that I continually struggle with is what I call the Nurture verses Academia dilemma. For example, in my student teaching experience, I had one student who tried very hard, was very diligent, and came to me for help all the time, but still could not write according to the guidelines of Standard English. In one sense, I felt that if I failed this student on each assignment, she would not continue to put in the effort that I was seeing. I did not want to discourage her, but in the same sense, I did not feel I would be doing her any justice in the world if I “fudged” her grade.

I don’t have an answer to this problem. I tend to grade on the high side and conference with my students on a regular basis. In this sense, I am allowing my students the chance to learn from their mistakes without stripping them of their self-esteem. If I were to fail a student on a paper and ruin that child’s sense of accomplishment, I would have failed as a teacher. Putting in the honest effort and participating in the art of writing is more important, I believe, than a good grade. However, students do not see their work in this way. The end result, for them, is ultimately the grade, not whether they learned something new or accomplished something very difficult.

Because assigning grades is mandatory throughout most of education, the decision of whether or not to assess is really out of an instructor’s hands. However, the dilemmas of assessment still linger, and in some cases, are just as hard, if not harder, to deal with and work through. What makes one paper better than another? Other than grammar and syntax, the grade assigned to the paper is the mercy of the teacher. What happens if teachers fail students who put in more effort than students who are passing but don’t care? What are we doing to these children who just can’t seem to grasp the ideas and practices of writers? Are we preparing them for the world, where they will not be given any special attention, or are we discouraging them to try again? How do we, as teachers, deal with this?

I certainly don’t have the answers. These are questions I struggle with every time my eyes come across a piece of student writing. All I can do, for now, is encourage every one of the students I work with, and allow each and every one of them their own triumphs and failures.

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