When we give a star rating to a business or a play or a product, often that is all we do. Much of the time, we don’t analyze why we gave that rating or justify it. If we do give an explanation on sites such as Angie’s List or HomeStars it is often because we were either very pleased or very displeased. There are not a lot of explanations in the mid-range because those are the hardest to put into words. It takes time and effort to turn a sense of nuanced satisfaction or disgruntlement into a detailed analysis, so most of us don’t bother.
I have reached the point where I no longer feel inclined to provide feedback on services for a few reasons. First, I have had one experience when a service provider phoned to yell at me about my feedback, and another when the provider called within hours asking for an explanation. In both instances, I felt intimidated.
Second, the rating systems can make or break small businesses, and that is simply unfair. Of all the clients they have, only a small percentage will submit feedback. If a significant proportion of the people who provide feedback do so only because they are unhappy, then the star system provides a skewed result. Those results on review sites then become the public face of the business.
Third, star ratings can be statistically invalid. I don’t know much about statistics, but I do know that it takes more than a few data points to make some sort of projection. Pollsters get feedback from thousands of people before they are able to make a determination on something, and even then, it has to be stated with qualifiers about degrees of probability. Feedback on businesses and cultural products do none of those things. They are simply the opinions of one or a few people, but when they are placed in public media they can be perceived to be just as valid as exhaustive research.
Fourth, individual assessments of the work of a person or a business on public websites give the reviewer a megaphone. If they were to talk directly to the subject of their feedback, they would be able to engage in debate and correction if it is called for. The perception could be clarified, the work could be re-evaluated or redone, and the praise could be enjoyed in person. Very little, if any, of that interaction happens on feedback websites. What could be private becomes public and has far more influence than it deserves.
Teachers and instructors have to grade students’ work all the time, and many find the task challenging. Not only is it time-consuming to read through students’ work or to develop tests, but it is also troubling to have to reduce all the work to a single letter or number. It means so much to the student but on its own, the score looks inadequate. And, it is.
The score doesn’t tell you how much work went into achieving it or how much the student has improved over time. It doesn’t tell you how much risk was taken in coming up with the finished work or how difficult it was for the student to find the time to do it. It only tells you what all the assignments, all the learning, all the reading, all the writing, and all the discussions boil down to. It is the concentrate, not the juice.
When possible, educators give their students an explanation to go with the scores. They show where the work falls short of expectations, and where there were wrong answers or faulty logic. Many will also show where the work was well done and why. Ultimately, they want the student to succeed and they try to point them in that direction and to encourage them.
Star rating systems on small businesses and local arts do none of these things. A star rating might have some value when thousands of responses are collated, such as on Netflix, but when tied to a single person or local business a few low scores can be devastating. Not only do they demoralize the people targeted, but they fail to guide them to greater success. If I were grading them, star rating systems would not pass.