Tuesday, May 05, 2009


Appeals and Do-Overs

For reasons too sensitive to blog about, I've recently had occasion to revisit the idea of grade appeals. From this side of the desk, I'm convinced that a commonly-held student perception, and a commonly-held faculty perception, are both wrong.

(For the record, I'm referring here to grade appeals that go beyond just talking to the professor. This is the stuff that happens after the professor has already said 'no.' Whenever a student appeals a grade at this level, the first question is always "have you talked to the professor?" If not, the process stops until they do that.)

A small but non-zero group of students seem to think that a grade appeal amounts to a free do-over. Their preferred approach -- and I've seen this enough times over enough years to feel some confidence in saying this -- is to bring in a few examples of graded work, hide the grade, and ask "what would you give this?" I don't answer that, which seems to strike them as evasive.

My reasons for not answering are several. First, obviously, I'm not a subject-matter expert in everything. Second, I don't know the class average, or what the professor was trying to do. But third, and this is the point that seems to elude many, what I think isn't the point. It isn't about what I think.

To my mind, that's the key difference between 'grading' and 'judging an appeal.' An initial grade determination is the expert judgment of a student's work. A grade appeal isn't. For a grade appeal to carry any weight with me, it isn't nearly enough to show that the professor made a judgment call differently than I would have. They're allowed. A student has to show either that the professor made a provable mistake, or that untoward factors were brought to bear. In other words, show that the grade for student 23 was entered for student 24 -- I actually saw that happen once -- or show either disparate treatment or extreme favoritism.

In other words, if you got a C on a test that you and I agree should have received a B, the C stands unless you can prove far more than that. You'd need to show that the answer key was wrong, or that it was misapplied, or that the professor singled out one group for favored or disfavored treatment (and "those who studied" doesn't count as a favored group). If it came to light that the professor accepted money for grades, or completely disregarded the syllabus and just made stuff up on the fly, then you've got something.

The reason for that is basic. Across the college, every semester, thousands of grades are issued. I have to assume that they're right, unless proved otherwise. I'm not shocked to hear that some professors are harder graders than others, or that some do things in ways that I personally wouldn't. In an appeal, I'm not looking for whether s/he did it my way. I'm looking for a sign of malpractice so egregious that it's worth intervening in the professional judgment of faculty. That bar gets cleared once in a great while, but most of the time, it's not close.

The faculty perception that I battle is the idea that no grade should be changed, ever, without the consent of the professor.

Imagine this standard applied to any other kind of appeal. No defendant shall held accountable without his consent. It's self-evidently absurd. By the principle that nobody should be a judge in his own case, I find unethical the idea that the most that an appeal can lead to is 'reconsideration.' Otherwise, I could find that a given professor graded out of personal pique, then refer the grade back to that same professor for reconsideration. What do you think would happen?

No. For an appeal to mean something, it has to be enforceable. Enforcement should be rare, and reserved for exceptional cases, but the possibility has to exist. Otherwise, 'appeal' is just another word for 'run-around.' From the perspective of a wronged student, the idea that the best you could hope for would be a repeat of the initial injury is insulting at best. I can't imagine that holding up in court. I'd have no problem with remanding it to a committee of other faculty with the subject-matter competence -- that would get around the 'administrative power-grab' objection -- but to remand it to the very professor whose judgment has already been found compromised violates common sense and basic fairness.

Appeals aren't do-overs, and they aren't polite requests to take another look. They should be narrowly argued, sparsely applied, and enforceable. Administrators who go overboard are accountable to higher administrators and to the Trustees, so there's a check. That's not perfect, but the alternatives are either chaos or petty tyranny. In the absence of a better alternative, rare-but-enforceable strikes me as the best we can do.

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