Having just finished a semester that was capped off by grading 38 freshman composition portfolios, grading is still fresh in my mind. I feel I have come a long way in the four years I have been teaching. Grading is a tricky task, especially in English, especially in composition - it's so "subjective." No multiple choice. So I use rubrics and try to thoroughly explain what makes a paper a good paper or a not so good paper.
However, some doubts still linger, doubts also voiced by some fellow TAs. Like, "The student worked so hard and improved so much. They deserve an A." Or, "The student is working with a disadvantage, like English is his second language, or she comes from an underprivileged background. They cannot be graded by the same standard."
Here is the analogy I have developed. English 101 is like a race. The students sign up to run the race. The teacher is a coach. We make them run laps and give them pointers about improving their form or their time or their strength. Then, we mark off a course, yell "Go," and start the timer. Some students will have a natural advantage - they are stronger, they've done a lot of running before, etc. Some students will have improved a lot from the time they first started training and can run much faster. However, the stop-watch is what matters. If a runner improved their time from a 13 minute mile to a 10 minute mile, that is fantastic and they should be celebrated. But that does not mean that they have run an 8 minute mile. Some students will make stupid mistakes. They won't show up for practice, or they will veer off the course, or they will come without their shoes. They will have a lousy time, but the coach can't adjust their time, give them extra-credit.
I think that the problem lies with conflating a grade with a reward. And I have to confess that I did this for the entirety of my student career - my self-worth was entirely mixed up with the grades I received. But the grade is not the reward, it is just the assesment, it's your time. It shows you how well you have done, what your abilities are, and how you could improve. It is a valuable tool for a runner, as a grade is for a student. This is why grade inflation is so ridiculous. Giving a student an A when he has done B- work, is like telling a runner who runs a 10 minute mile that he can run an 8 minute mile. He will be unaware of the training he needs and at the next race, he will be overwhelmed when he is passed.
From what I have gathered, there is a lot of debate on process-value and product-value in composition circles. Do you place value on the student's ability to master the process of writing, shown through revision, or do you place the value on the final product they have written? It seems to me that perhaps there is another way of looking at it, not just process or product but performance - if you run well with good form and a lot of miles of practice behind you, you're going to have an impressive time - performance seems to encompass both the final product and the process that it took to achieve it.