I grade essays on a 100-point scale.

Essays that get a 93 and a 90 are both A-minus essays, in my accounting. (Making a 93 an A-minus is my little stand in the battle against grade inflation.)

The 93 and the 90 might largely be the same in the essential elements—both should have analytical theses, an overall structure that clearly presents the argument, and focused paragraphs that each support a piece of the argument with well-chosen and well-interpreted evidence. They might be A-minus, rather than A, because of a very basic or slightly flawed introduction or conclusion.

However, giving a 93 allows me to reward slightly more ambitious theses, or a better vocabulary, or more elegant writing. The 90 might be sloppier, needing more proofreading, or have more instances of passive or convoluted writing.

Possibly most importantly, the ability to make a distinction between two A-minus essays saves me from spending ages pondering whether the 93 is good enough to actually deserve an A instead of an A-, or the 90 ought really to be a B+, in order to reflect that one essay is clearly stronger overall.

Published in response to comments here and here, about not being able to tell the difference between 81 and 85, and sorta here, about grading standards. I picked 93 and 90 because it’s simpler—there are about twenty different paths I could take to arrive at giving an 81 and and 85 . It dawns on me that while I try to be pretty transparent about grading, this is not actually an example I’ve shared with my students. Maybe I will. I tried once, by doing a flow chart of my decision making, but it got impossibly complex once I got past A-range papers. Perhaps I’ll try a matrix someday.