Grades and Grading

It's the end of April, and various rituals of classification and accountability are being enacted in our society. One of these is income tax, where people are held accountable for contributing to society in a monetary way. People are sorted into tax brackets and asked to show whether they have or have not paid the appropriate amount of tax this year.

Another such ritual is the grading of students. At my school, instructors are busy grading final exams and assigning each student an overall grade for their performance. Students are sifted and sorted according to their achievement on each component of the course. These components vary from course to course. They can include class participation, take-home assignments, in-class quizzes and tests, formal group presentations, and exams.


Are you an A student? It may be some time since you were in school, but if you were an A student, you will certainly remember.


The marks students are given on any component can be obviously subjective, like class participation, and less obviously subjective, like a mark on an essay that was graded using what educators call a rubric. The mark might be considered objective, if the question is narrow enough and if there is enough agreement amongst other people on what the answer is supposed to be. (Physics, for instance. Management of organizations, not so much. Grading is a reflection not just of student performance, but of how we divide up the world into topics and what kinds of questions those topics ask about the world.)

However the student is assessed, the opinions of the instructor are translated into a grade that is used to compare students to each other. They are sorted into buckets, classified according to their performance, and recorded as having a degree of mastery over a topic.

Eventually, if the students accumulate enough passing grades, they will be certified as having a university degree of some type: a Bachelor of Arts or an MBA.  The degree becomes a symbol of their quality and a component of their identity. The degree is a form of symbolic capital that they have invested in, which they can convert into a job with a particular social status and a particular income, which eventually will accumulate - they hope - in the form of financial capital.

Whether education should be thought of in these terms, that is, in terms of jobs and income, is debatable, but one this is certain: it is thought of in these terms, whether we like it or not. We could ask all kinds of critical questions about this, but for the moment, I'm going to limit myself to this one: is this process of grading and assessing students a form of accounting?

Looking for accounting in all the wrong places is kind of the point of this website.

So, is grading students accounting? Perhaps not. There is no money involved: things are not being assigned a cost, nothing is being measured in terms of dollars or pounds or euros. But there are other aspects of accounting at play here.

We can see this if we rephrase the question: who is being held accountable. To a great extent in our system of education, it's the instructor who is being held accountable, not the student. Did I, as an instructor, grade the students fairly? Did I do a good job of distributing their accomplishments according to a justifiable scale of measurement? Did I separate the wheat from the chaff?

Separating the wheat from the chaff is part of my job. Not my favourite part, but an inescapable one, for sure. Students pay a lot of money and invest a lot of effort into finding out whether I think they are any good at accounting. My judgement is a scarce commodity. I don't sell it cheap.

Rubric for an accounting assignment. You can't colour outside the lines in accounting.

Photograph of nicely sorted fruit in a market in Kathmandu, taken in 2014.