Grade Appeals FAQs

Let's face it: colleges and universities issue a lot of student grades, many of which are erroneous or undeserved. Nearly all of us have at some educational level experienced getting an undeserved grade. Grading, or assessment as academics like to call it, is fraught with potential for numeric or administrative errors, and instructor mistakes, bias, and subjective judgments.

Colleges and universities maintain student handbooks and other academic policies stating whether the institution offers grade appeals. Law alone does not generally require an institution to offer a grade appeal, except in the case of a public institution's denial of due process over a substantial property right in earning a degree. Yet many institutions, both public and private, maintain student handbooks and academic policies offering grade appeals. Institutions that do so may have a contract or other obligation to make good on their offer.

National academic attorney and advisor Joseph D. Lento of the Lento Law Firm wants to educate you about legal rights and personal interests surrounding academic issues, including grade appeals. Joseph D. Lento assists college and university students nationwide, not just defending academic-misconduct charges but also with a wider range of academic issues, including grade appeals. Read on for important information about your grade-appeal rights.

Understanding the Problem

Some instructors take the time to learn grading theory, including the important principles of validity and reliability. In simplest terms, validity refers to the test aligning with the instruction and its objectives so that the test accurately measures what it should. Reliability refers to the test consistently producing those valid results rather than working one time but not the next.

A few more instructors learn how to design assessments and scoring rubrics that meet those principles. Simply understanding test validity and reliability is not enough. The instructor must also design a test and the means for scoring it that will carry out those two principles. Knowing the damage bad grading does, colleges and universities devote substantial resources to teaching instructors how to design and score tests.

But you know the adage that guiding professors is like herding cats. Many instructors neither understand grading theory nor take the time to follow it, when even professors know that thoughtful grading designs reduce burdensome appeals. Poor, inaccurate, undeserved grades, and all of their damaging impacts, are the result. The problem, then, is holding your institution accountable to responsible grading standards through a grade appeal.

What Is a Grade Appeal?

Students considering a grade appeal need first to understand what a grade appeal is and what a grade appeal isn't. Grade appeals come in two main types. The first type addresses administrative or numeric errors. Whether the examination or assignment from which the student hopes to appeal the grade involves multiple-choice questions, essay questions, problem-solving, written work, or other types of assessments, scoring student work often involves assigning and then adding numbers. Instructors weary of scoring dozens of exams or assignments can make arithmetic mistakes. Administrative or numeric appeals challenge and correct those errors.

The second type of grade appeal addresses errors in the instructor's application of the instructor's or institution's established grading standards. If the exam or other assignment says to do this, the instructor's model answer or scoring guide confirms doing that, and the student's answer does exactly that, then the grade should give the student credit. Successful appeals of this type generally depend on the quality of the test item and model answer or scoring rubric, and the clarity of the student's answer meeting the scoring guide.

What a Grade Appeal Isn't

What a grade appeal cannot successfully do is to challenge the instructor's or institution's judgments about what instruction should achieve. Grade appeals can correct numeric errors. They can even correct a misapplication of the instructor's and institution's standards. But grade appeals cannot change those standards. A student arguing that the instructor should have designed a different test item or assigned different graded work, to achieve different learning outcomes, will fail in any grade appeal. Instructors and institutions set course and program requirements and determine how to measure student success in meeting those objectives. See here an example of one institution's grade-appeal policy similarly distinguishing between what an appeal is and what an appeal isn't.

Should I Appeal a Grade?

So, how do you decide whether to appeal a grade? First, determine the type of appeal, whether administrative/numeric, misapplication of standards, or a dispute over the standards themselves. Administrative or numeric appeals are the easiest to win because the issue is entirely objective, typically a black-and-white matter of arithmetic. Disputes over misapplied standards are harder but still winnable if the standards are reasonably clear. Disputes over the standards themselves are not a winnable appeal.

Next, consider what you have at stake in the grade. You probably didn't consider a grade appeal simply because you didn't like the grade. How, if at all, is the grade affecting your ability to achieve your educational goals? You may better spend your time appealing the grade or, on the other hand, working on your next studies. See the next section on why to appeal.

Finally, consider the procedures that your college or university mandates for grade appeals. As another section below explains, some schools have simple procedures, other elaborate procedures. Sometimes those procedures give students certain advantages, while other times, the procedures clearly only help the school. So again, when considering appealing a grade, think of your type of appeal, your reasons for appealing, and your procedure for appeal. Those three factors should help you decide whether to appeal a grade.

Why Appeal a Grade?

Students appeal grades for a variety of reasons, some very sensible and others not so much. Some of the not-so-sound reasons can include simple pride, unhealthy competition with other students, and a lack of perspective on more-important internal and personal matters rather than external indicators of success. Grades are generally not the be-all and end-all of life. Education and personal and professional advancement are the broader goals, not artificial grades.

Yet grades can also be hugely important. Very good reasons to appeal a grade can exist, including at least the following:

  • qualifying for a dean's list, honor roll, or graduating rank such as magna cum laude, cum laude, or high honors;
  • remaining in good academic standing above a cut-off line below which the student loses educational rights and privileges;
  • avoiding having to repeat a course or avoiding outright dismissal for failure to maintain a minimum grade;
  • qualifying for student organizations, boards, journals, leadership opportunities, and other co-curricular and extra-curricular activities;
  • qualifying for school employment as a teaching assistant, research assistant, or in other roles;
  • qualifying or continuing to qualify for merit-based scholarships, grants, or other government, foundation, or institutional financial support;
  • preserving family financial and social support expressly or implicitly dependent on high grades;
  • qualifying for entry into honors programs, selective courses, or graduate schools; and
  • qualifying for internships, job interviews, and career opportunities in desired fields or with desired employers.

Even when clear and significant external indicators are absent as to the negative impact of an undeserved grade, a student may justly feel that ignoring an undeserved grade fails to hold the school accountable. The grade may not impact you but, you may feel, could adversely impact others. You may also feel that the school owes you and other students fair grades. In that event, an appeal may be appropriate. Still, if a successful appeal would change nothing for you, then consider alternative actions such as critical review on professor evaluations or informal communication with the professor and supervising department chair or dean.

What Are Grounds for a Grade Appeal?

Colleges and universities that offer grade appeals in their student handbooks or other academic policies may state in those same policies the acceptable grounds for grade appeals. Check your school's grade-appeal policy.

As an above section intimates, the first usual good grounds for a grade appeal is an error in the grade's calculation, caused by numeric or arithmetic anomalies. For example, if the instructor adds up a string of subordinate scores incorrectly, shorting the student on total points in a way that reduces the final grade, then the error should be good grounds for appeal. Many instructors and schools will correct those errors promptly without more than the student's clear demonstration of the error.

As an above section also intimates, the instructor's misapplication of exam, course, or institution standards may be a second good grounds for appeal. For instance, if an objective test's scoring rubric or model answer indicates that an answer is a certain letter option, yes rather than no, a certain solution, or true rather than false, then a student's answer to that effect should result in the scoring marking the item as correct rather than incorrect. Like numeric errors, instructors and institutions are likely to correct scoring errors in items requiring objective answers.

Instructor misapplication of exam, course, or institution standards on a written paper or an exam's essay question can be more difficult to evaluate, especially when the instructor has not objectified the performance measure with a clear model answer and, better yet, scoring rubric. Subjective instructor evaluation of written answers makes it difficult to prove this ground.

Other helpful indicators, though, may creep into the misapplication of exam, course, or institution standards. Grading should be unbiased. Watch for overt or covert indications of bias, especially discrimination based on a protected characteristic such as race, sex, age, ethnicity, religion, and the like. Grading should also be reasoned rather than arbitrary, capricious, and inconsistent. Inconsistent grading may support grounds based on the misapplication of stated grading criteria.

What Are Grade-Appeal Procedures?

Colleges and universities that offer grade appeals in their student handbook or other academic policies generally define the accompanying procedure. Some schools, such as a law school as in this example, may offer elaborate grade-appeal procedures in part for the learning the student will achieve in navigating those procedures. Other schools may have highly informal procedures, perhaps no more than inviting the student to inquire of the instructor if the instructor so permits.

See here an example of a three-level appeal grade-appeal procedure moving from instructor review to department review to dean review. Schools offering formal grade-appeal procedures often include all, most, or some of these common procedures:

  • opportunity to review the student's work and instructor scoring;
  • opportunity to obtain a copy of the student's work;
  • opportunity to obtain the instructor's model answer or scoring guide;
  • opportunity to review the scoring numbers or marks and their calculation;
  • necessity of informal consultation with instructor before appeal;
  • deadline within which to submit an appeal;
  • materials that must accompany the appeal, including identification of error and requested correction;
  • participation, if any, of student advisory board or student magistrates;
  • time, manner, and content of instructor decision and justification;
  • time and manner of dean, department chair, or other appeal review.

How Can an Attorney-Advisor Help with Grade Appeal?

Grading theory, grade definitions, and grade-appeal procedures can form a daunting subject even for mature college and university students. Students generally do not possess substantial knowledge about grading theory and principles, assessment rubrics, and the often-byzantine procedures that schools require students to follow to complete a grade appeal. Students are also usually not accustomed to preparing elaborate presentations and clear argumentation in a dispute-resolution setting.

Joseph D. Lento of the Lento Law Firm is a national academic attorney and advisor with the skill and experience to assist you with important grade-appeal rights. He can help you understand the grading theory and evaluate the test form, scoring rubric, and awarded grade using that knowledge. The Lento Law Firm can also help you prepare the grade appeal, ensuring rigorous administrative review.

Let Joseph D. Lento's knowledge of grading theory and practices and experience with grade appeals help you pursue a grade appeal to obtain the grade that you deserve. Appreciate the value of an experienced attorney advisor in this technical academic area of assessing an instructor's assessment measuring student work. You already know the value of good grades, promoting your reputation, education, and career. Hundreds of college and university students nationwide have retained Joseph D. Lento at the Lento Law Firm to assist them with academic issues including grade appeals. He has the expertise to help you navigate grade-appeal procedures and get the grade you deserve. Call 888-535-3686 to schedule a consultation, or use the online service.

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