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OPINION: When Arts Grades Aren’t Fair

Report card: two words that are a guaranteed way to invoke emotion in any student. It might be pride, disappointment or fear of being punished by the parental units. Some may hide it better than others, but the report card is a significant aspect of every student’s life. Why? As a student, your goals are to learn and to apply your learning in evaluation. If report cards are a reflection of your success in achieving these goals, your worth as a student is defined by these numbers.

If we insist on quantifying learning by a column of percentages or letter grades, it would be pertinent to ensure that the scale remains meaningful. This is easier said than done with subjects that require creativity and individuality. In a course like accounting, the expected answers are straightforward, with no wiggle room for interpretation. The value is either correct or incorrect. The same recipe cannot be followed in a history class. There are still vague parameters for identifying a correct answer, but most forms of assessment will involve the student’s unique perspective. 

OPINION: When Arts Grades Aren't Fair

Not every subject can be marked with a Scantron.

Plainly put, arts subjects are subjective. Colliding opinions are rampant and can pose a communication barrier between teacher and student. Teachers may subconsciously give higher grades when they agree with a student, and students may think the worst of a teacher without understanding their rationale. Aside from content-based bias, every teacher will have stylistic preferences. Different teachers set different expectations for their classes, with no universal answer to what an A+ actually entails. After all, how can one ever call a painting or poem perfect? The possibilities are endless, and we can only conclude that the evaluation of these subjects is no easy task. 

How Might We Reduce the Subjectivity of Arts Grades?

Take, for example, an eager visual arts student. (This student falls within the range of kindergarten to Grade 12, since universities and colleges are usually considered private goods, and professors have different obligations than teachers.) They have put all of their effort into an assignment, only to receive a lower mark than anticipated. How might such an evaluation be marked as fairly and as objectively as possible?

1. Both students and teachers should be prepared to consider perspectives aside from their own. A student might keep in mind that a teacher knows the course material better and has more experience. In turn, a teacher should work on not favouring student responses that align with their own opinion or approach. Teachers can implement more opportunities for students to share their own insights. A visual arts student might hand in a brief write-up to explain their thought process as they created their work, and discuss the project in depth with the teacher prior to evaluation. The work can then be graded on the clarity of its message, as opposed to the teacher’s interpreted message.

2. Feedback could be mandated. Extensive feedback is, after all, proven to be an effective method for a teacher to motivate and communicate with a student. While some teachers do this, quality critique is not heavily regulated, which means it is not guaranteed in every class. Some teachers are content to let the grade speak for itself, making said grade more biased. Personalised feedback takes time, but a student needs to understand where the grade is coming from. Teachers should also try to ensure that students understand how to implement their feedback, which could be done by the occasional verbal check-in.

OPINION: When Arts Grades Aren't Fair

Feedback is critical to learning.

3. Students could be given the opportunity to get input from more than one teacher. While re-grading is allowed and accepted in many schools, most students would never dare to ask for fear of angering their teacher. While getting two grades for one assignment means more work for the teachers, it would reduce the negative effects of a teacher’s stylistic bias. Perhaps the evaluations weighted heavily in a student’s grade, like culminating activities, could undergo a cursory glance from a second teacher who does not compare notes with the first teacher. 

4. Teachers might reduce the amount of marking that is done on the most subjective aspects of an evaluation. An art project, for example, might only have three marks: one for progress at a midway checkpoint, one for completion according to the criteria, and a mark for improving in previous weak areas. Students can be marked more strictly on a test about art technique, which makes an answer objectively correct. This would not work with heavily weighted assignments, but doing so with smaller evaluations can massively reduce the opportunity for bias.

5. The school board curriculum could provide a structure for less vague criteria. An individual school department can then adjust the criteria slightly to meet the needs of their students. Although curricula often include expectations of each subject, they often permit teachers the leeway to build their rubrics from scratch, and mark based on personal preferences. The Ontario provincial curriculum asks high school visual arts students to “explore elements and principles of design, and apply them to create art works that express personal feelings and/or communicate emotions.” Instead of using general terms to keep from inadvertently stifling creativity, the curriculum could pinpoint and provide examples of the skills and techniques that a student should develop.  

As long as our teachers are human, grading will never be objective. However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t improve the current system. Taking just one or two of these measures might make the marking process more impartial, which might make a difference with the next generation of arts students.

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OPINION: When Arts Grades Aren't Fair