There are a lot of ways to think about grades. Not all of them are helpful. Sometimes students become so concerned with grades that they lose sight of what it is that the grades are intended to do, which is to provide feedback about performance. It is my teacherly hope that students will come to understand, if they don't already, that we are not here to rack up grades; we are here to help each other learn to read better, write better, and think better. Any student who convinces me that he/she is taking those goals seriously and is working hard to achieve them is going to have no worries about grades.
In any attempt to give feedback about performance, there is an element of subjectivity. Two teachers, given the same work by the same student, might very well assign different grades, based on different criteria. I myself, given the same response from two different students, might grade them differently for what I think are good reasons. Take the example of a short, clearly written essay that doesn't go very deeply into the subject at hand. If that essay is handed in by a student who has been struggling to write more clearly and who has in this case, for the first time, succeeded, I will in all likelihood choose to reward that student's "breakthrough" piece by giving it a high grade. If the same essay is handed in by a student who always writes clearly but is capable of much deeper thought than is on display in the paper, I will quite probably NOT want to reward that student for work which is beneath his potential.
In any case, individual grades on individual pieces of writing are not, in my judgment, of particular importance. What does interest me is the overall pattern of performance, which includes not only the numerical grades themselves but entire set of attitudes: Does the student seem interested? Does the student participate in class? Does the student listen well and ask good questions? Does the student make an effort to communicate with me? Does the student come in for conferences? Does the student seem to care about learning? Does the student support others and make an effort to bring positive energy into the classroom? Does the student ever undertake independent work on his/her own initiative?
All of these factors influence the grade. I use the numbers in the mark book as one measuring point, but a student's quarter grade can go up or down as much as half a grade from the numerical average - say, from a B to an A- or B to a C+ - depending on how impressed or how unimpressed I am by attitudinal factors such as those listed above.
That much said, here is my attempt to explain what the numbers mean. I do most of my grading on a five point scale. The descriptors which follow have to do primarily with essays, but can with minor modifications be applied to creative writing as well.
A exemplary paper, one which could be used as a model for how the assignment should be done. Generally, 5 papers are clear, well-organized, neatly presented, and free of mechanical errors. They represent a level of effort which goes beyond the minimum; that is, there is visible evidence that the writer is making an effort both to go broad (for example, by examining an issue from more than one point of view) and to go deep (for example, by raising an original question and pursuing it beyond first thoughts.) A 5 paper should show evidence of careful thought and precise articulation, and should move smoothly between generalizations on the one hand and convincing, thought-provoking examples on the other.
A quality response to the assignment. If you have done a good job on the assignment, you can expect to see a 4 on the paper. Generally, 4 papers are, like 5 papers, clear, well-organized, neatly presented, and free of egregious mechanical errors. They also represent a level of effort which goes beyond the minimum and attempt to engage the assignment in a thoughtful manner. They may contain minor logical, syntactical, formatting errors, or other minor inconsistencies, but should balance these off with other strengths. Again, there should be an effort to illustrate generalizations with specific examples.
An adequate response to the assignment: 3 in essence means "Okay." A 3 paper makes a solid attempt to deal with the assignment. The writing succssfully conveys the author's thoughts, although it may not be as well-conceived, well-organized, or well-developed as in 4 and 5 papers. Examples may be either less convincing or less fully elaborated than in better papers, but the intention to give examples is evident.
Fails to engage the issues raised by the assignment. Demonstrates weak control over the elements of composition. Typically contains recurring stylistic flaws or relies heavily on predictable generalizations. May be unclear, imprecise, poorly organized, or confusing in some other way.
Fails to answer the demands of the assignment. Is unusually careless, poorly organized, or badly presented. Total lack of effort.
General note: No paper which contains common mechanical and grammatical errors, or which shows evidence of carelessness in writing or proofreading, will receive a grade higher than 3.
Note to students: If you are looking at a number which a) you believe is not an accurate reflection of the amount and quality of the work you have put into an assignment or b) you do not understand the reasoning for, then that is an opportunity for us to have a conversation. In other words, if you are generally happy with the numbers you are looking at, then you can assume that everything is fine. If you are unhappy or confused about the numbers you are looking at, it is your responsibility to make arrangements to see me in conference to talk things over.