On Downgrades and Grades; or, Dude, Score Thyself

Yesterday, in a post on her New Yorker blog, Close Read, titled “Rioting Markets,” Amy Davidson, commenting on a surreal week in our markets and cities, a week when one wondered, like Yeats wondered, if the center can hold, said, “We lost our credit rating, after all, in large part because of a riot by ostensible grownups in Congress.” What Amy is saying is that the reason for the downgrade was S&P’s feeling that Congress was unable to lower debt by increasing revenue (i.e. raising taxes), and based on what S&P’s David Beers said following, that the Bush tax-cuts should be repealed, we agree with Amy’s comment, but, and while Yeats could not afford to quibble, the gyre widening as he wrote, quibble we must with Amy’s saying “we lost our credit rating,” for we did not lose our credit rating. We were “downgraded” from AAA to AA+. And even to call this change a downgrade, while accurate, misses an opportunity to talk about the incredible and arcane chicanery of the rating system. It’s like school grades, only worse.

Here are the possible ratings that Standard & Poor’s might assign to an organization: AAA, AA+, AA, AA-, A+, AA-, BBB+, BBB, BBB-, BB+, BB, BB-, B+, B, B-, CCC to C. Was there ever a school report card this complicated?

In the recent S&P downgrade, the US was rescored from a grade of AAA to a grade of AA+. For comparison, think of student grades, think A-. Still a good score, excellent, in fact, right? But the general reaction to the S&P downgrade bears some similarity to the grade inflation in US schools, for an A-, as Louis Menand has pointed out, means failure where “American colleges notoriously inflate grades, but they can never inflate them enough, because education in the United States has become hypercompetitive and every little difference matters.” Thus, students who receive a grade of A- may react as if they’ve just been given an F.

But what does AA+ mean in S&P’s widening gyre? Basically, the score is a stress test. The scores indicate what economic stress level an organization ought to be able to bear and still withstand default. So what is economic stress, and how is that measured? S&P’s explanation for a score of AA includes the ability to withstand a 70% decline in the stock market. That’s like saying you ought to be able to chugalug a 5th of Southern Comfort and still sing the alphabet song backwards.

Switch to an imagined conversation between Bill and Ted. “What’d you get on the big math test, Dude?” “BB, Dude.” “Most excellent, Dude! Rock on!” An S&P score of BB indicates the ability to withstand a 25% drop in the stock market. Dude, score thyself.

Grading Etiquette

Joseph Williams’s “The Phenomenology of Error” isn’t about grading so much as it is about finding error. It’s by now a history piece, but should be revisited. The idea is that readers, graders, teachers are predisposed to look for certain things they can and do call errors and to ignore or miss other issues that might be and are called errors by others. There appears to be no universal scorecard, no biblical rubric. The etiquette of golf is more rigorous and precise than the rules of writing and reading. And with regard to the etiquette of reading, marking, and scoring papers, as Beckett said, you’ve only to listen to any conversation for five minutes to note inherent chaos.

That’s not to say there have not been efforts to tidy up the mess. Picked at random, the University of Maryland’s grading guidelines seem reasonable. But note the general rubric for an “A” paper:  “It not only fulfills the assignment but does so in a fresh and mature way. The paper is exciting to read; it accommodates itself well to its intended audience.” The intended audience of course is no doubt an adjunct instructor sitting over a laptop, drinking coffee at the boisterous Bipartisan Cafe. But how can a paper be “exciting to read”? Excitement is something that registers in the reader’s mind, and what excites one reader may put another into a coma. But perhaps the mystery is solved by the semicolon; for if a paper does “accommodate itself well to its intended audience,” it may, by definition, be exciting? But even if we resolve what is or is not exciting, how are we to determine if something is “fresh and mature”? Isn’t this oxymoronic? Fresh suggests something the reader has never seen before, yet mature suggests it’s nevertheless something the reader recognizes. Perhaps there is some sense to that. But fresh and mature excitement, wrapping snugly around its audience, is not the only requisite of the “A” paper at the U of M: the paper must also reference “citations [that] are used effectively where appropriate and are formatted correctly.” Ah, formatting! But what is incorrect formatting? Incorrect formatting is like the microphone that descends like an unsightly strap slipping from the shoulder of the top of the screen, distracting the audience from the verisimilitude and pretension strutting across the stage. But let’s move on. Also in the “A” paper, we find “paragraphs that are fully developed,” like firm, ripe tomatoes. Now that’s exciting. Yet the “A” paper requires that the prose be only “occasionally memorable.” And note that this disallows the reader justifying a failing mark because he can not remember the paper, yet his remembering it might be because he’s seen it before.

We may also learn from the “F” paper rubric at the U of M. The “F” paper “is off the assignment. The thesis is unclear; the paper moves confusedly in several directions. It may even fall seriously short of minimum length requirements.” But wait, doesn’t this sound fresh and exciting, if not mature? Were we in a math class, seriously might be defined as, perhaps, 60% of minimum – just a guess. Whatever serious is, “there is virtually no evidence, or the attribution of evidence is problematic or has been neglected.” Now that sounds serious, but perhaps the audience is the same as that for television news shows? Yeah, but “the organization seems to a significant degree haphazard or arbitrary.” That’s bad, like the front page of today’s newspaper. And not only that, but “some sentences are incomprehensible.” Imagine, but do they mean incomprehensible, or inconceivable?

Moral of the story? Etiquette is prescription where nature is found wanting.

Not the Rubric Itself, but Ideas about the Rubric

HTMLGIANT recently posted an interesting poetry rubric, evaluative criteria for students writing poems. One would think forcing a student to write a poem would be punishment enough, but grading the effort seems a bit excessive. In fairness to the teacher, maybe the rubric made more sense to the students in the class, or it might have been some sort of administrative mandate.

I was reminded of an old grading illustration. Here’s the scenario: art class – draw a picture of your house. Little Mary, who loves art, digs in with the crayons, drawing a tiny house below an enormous, blistering red-orange sun in a pink sky. The teacher walks by and asks “What’s that?,” pointing to the sun. “The sun,” Mary replies hopefully. “Oh, but is the sun really that big?” teacher asks, and slaps a C minus bigger than Mary’s house onto her work of art. The scenario is repeated the following art class when Mary downsizes her sun and upgrades her house. Teacher’s response: “Much better, Mary, but that sun is still too big.” The teacher draws a small B minus in the center of Mary’s sun. Mary’s next effort conforms to the teacher’s expectations: a tiny yellow dot in the sky just above the roof of a house that reaches to the top edge of the paper. Grade: A minus.

Thus Mary learns not art, but that to succeed in school means conforming to the teacher’s notion of reality, a notion that is at odds with Mary’s empirical knowledge, for the sun is, of course, bigger than any house. But in fairness to this teacher, maybe the lesson was perspective. But must every perspective be a fixed point of view?

Buckminster Fuller describes the effects of the art class scenario in “Education Automation: Freeing the Scholar to Return to His Studies”: “I am quite confident that humanity is born with its total intellectual capability already on inventory and that human beings do not add anything to any other human being in the way of faculties and capacities. What usually happens in the educational process is that the faculties are dulled, overloaded, stuffed and paralyzed, so that by the time that most people are mature they have lost use of many of their innate capabilities. My long-time hope is that we may soon begin to realize what we are doing and may alter the ‘education’ process in such a way as only to help the new life to demonstrate some of its very powerful innate capabilities.”

Here’s the “Period 9 Poetry Rubric”: “Title, 2 points; Stanza Breaks, 1 point; Line Breaks, 1 point; Concluding Lines, 3 points; So What? 3 points; Imagery, 3 points; Things not Ideas, 2 points.”

I was inspired to try my hand at a poem in response to the rubric. I made a few changes to the one I posted in comments at HTMLGIANT, so it’s a work in progress. Not sure that’s allowed under the rubric:

After the Title

After the title,

there’s not much more.

The stanzas break,

and lines fall apart

to the concluding

so what?

(“…the white chickens…

a red wheel barrow…”;

Not Ideas about the Thing

but the Thing Itself”)

The poem total

never enough.

Postscript, from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue. “I’ll pay as much attention to your text / And rubric in such things as would a gnat.”