The Common Sense Approach: Grades and ESL
by Steve Schackne


I have always felt that the quality of an ESL program was directly proportional to the amount of time spent on curriculum development and inversely proportional to the amount of time spent calculating, arguing about, curving, submitting, (and doing whatever you will) with grades; that is, teachers who spend more time on developing useful curriculum tend to serve students better than teachers who spend more time on the grading. An oversimplification, perhaps, but after 25 years working with countless schools where "numerical" grades are pored over, analyzed, adjusted, recorded, and, where the results tend to unfairly stigmatize or anoint students, I have come to the conclusion that a new, common sense approach to grading ESL students is needed.

Most educators will tell you that a primary purpose of grading is to provide feedback to students, not to rank them. But often, the reality is just the opposite. An isolated numerical grade can tell a student where he or she stands in relation to classmates, but not how good or bad the student's English is, and certainly not what areas need improvement. There are several reasons why numerical and letter grades (A-F) are both unsuitable for language students.

The Problems

First, language classes deal with a skill, unlike content classes which focus on a finite body of knowledge which has to be mastered in a set period of time. Skills take longer to master and the speed with which they are mastered tends to vary and fluctuate. Language students, like high school athletes, learn at differing speeds, and evaluating them at any point in the process is a bit like catching a falling knife. Dudley Bradley, ex-University of North Carolina basketball player, was a hindrance to the team his first two years, but blossomed into a star in his last two years. What grade do we give Mr. Bradley?...a "c"? The truth is he took a bit longer to learn the skills than some others on the team, but he arrived at the same point in his senior year. So it is with language students who move at different speeds based on their elapsed time and attendant time in language study, are exposed to different inputs affecting their skill acquisition, and pass through stages, such as "interlanguage" and "fossilization" which further complicate any short term evaluation.

Second, grading systems themselves tend to obscure and obfuscate. Pre grade inflation, a "gentlemanly c" was supposed to represent average, if undistinguished, performance. Now, with grade inflation, a "c" is considered abysmally substandard. The result is a cluster of high grades which do nothing to distinguish performance or highlight strength and weakness. Several schools are making good-faith attempts to reverse grade inflation, but even this healthy reform can have negative side effects--I have several B- students who could handle graduate work at non-elite American universities, but the admissions panels at these schools would likely penalize these students for such a grade.

Another confounding variable is the difference between U.S. and Western European grading standards; a 75 is the traditional average in the U.S. and 85 or higher is the current average at many schools. In Europe, the numbers are skewed downward with 65 often reflecting average performance. Granted, the "translation" of the grade into a letter can minimize confusion, but grade inflation renders even this adjustment misleading.

Finally, personality appears to play a greater role in the ESL class than in a content class. In content classes the relationship is often between the student and the material. This is especially true in large lecture halls with many students where the teacher is physically distant from his audience. The teacher-student relationship in the language class, however, takes on greater importance because language involves an interpersonal dynamic that is not always present in the large lecture hall. The student's personality, how outgoing or shy she is, body language, and other sociolinguistic features of language, can often unfairly influence a grade. Shy students grading lower because they don't attempt to produce as much as outgoing students is an example of this.


If numbers and letters don't succeed in giving students meaningful feedback, what is the solution? Well, conferencing with students to explain what areas need improvement is a good first step—this offers the advantage of giving students something they can “take to the bank,” instead of a simple number or letter they might not agree with. Since language levels are most often defined using broad descriptive categories—beginning, intermediate, advanced—this could also be employed in language classes. I recommend three simple grades, P(pass), F(fail), HP(high pass); this would include all students, recognize excellence, and avoid often questionable distinctions within the large middle group. This approach is even more practical given the fact that many ESL courses are “service” courses for other departments—the engineering, sociology, and business department deans are less interested in “the grade” than whether the student can handle the basic English necessary to perform in their departments. Moreover, many government organizations and private employers have their own qualifying exams and criteria; the reliance on classroom grades is currently on the wane in the global marketplace. All of these factors make traditional grading less relevant in today's changing world.


I once asked two EFL students what the difference was between a 76 and a 78. Their reply was silence. I then asked a faculty member. His reply was, “no difference, but there is a difference between a 70 and an 80.” How much difference? And does it justify the time we spend recording, calculating, and disseminating these numbers? Granted my [P,F,HP] model may need some tweaking if “P” is really to be a base standard; perhaps P could be 70-84, F under 70, HP 85 and over. This, of course, may not be an ideal solution, and a fourth general distinction, maybe LP for low pass, might need to be added. Whatever the solution, most EFL-ESL grading systems need reform of some kind. The cost in teacher hours and student angst just isn't worth it any more.


Steve Schackne has spent 25 years in the field of linguistics. In addition to teaching, his background includes teacher training, program administration, and online-distance learning.
He was educated at the University of North Carolina and the State University of New York, and has taken post graduate language training at Taipei Language Institute and the University of Macau. His postings have included Taipei Language Institute, Tunghai University (Taiwan), Kansas University, Culver Educational Foundation, University of California--Santa Barbara, Oklahoma State University, University of Macau, Ming Chuan University (Taiwan), and Fooyin Institute of Technology (Taiwan). He has lectured and published all over the world, but is now best known for his educational resource web site, Schackne Online.

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