How our grading supports inequity, and what we can do about it
Joe Feldman
July 16, 2015

textbooksSmartBlog on Education will shine a light on back-to-school teaching and learning trends during July. In this blog post, education consultant Joe Feldman tackles grading practices.

We pursue equity guided by our most enlightened thinking about teaching and learning: the significance of growth mindsets, the impact of teachers’ implicit biases and the importance of being culturally-responsive to students’ languages and experiences, to name a few. And yet the achievement and opportunity gaps persist. They persist because we leave unaddressed foundational elements of our educational system, elements borne during the Industrial Revolution when schools were designed primarily to sort students (and only a subset of students) based on assumptions of fixed mindsets, incorporation of implicit biases and a single normative conception of students. We will truly make our schools equitable when we confront a cornerstone of that 100-year old design that endures: our grading system.

The critical examination of how we grade might seem incidental to equity work and at the same time overwhelming to re-imagine, but improving grading is an incredibly powerful lever for strengthening equity in every element of teaching and learning.

For generations, a grade has been a combination of academic information -- test and quiz scores -- with non-academic information, such as behavior and attendance. Students are awarded points not only for exam questions they correctly answer, but for handing in homework on time, having properly organized notebooks, speaking only after raising their hands, working cooperatively and the list goes on. Because a grade is a composite of so many disparate elements, it becomes impossible to understand what the grade represents. What does a “B” describe? That a student mastered the academic content, but came late every day? That the student understood only some of the standards but completed all assignments on time (even if incorrect) and was kind to classmates? That the student aced major assessments, but was disrespectful? If a single grade can represent entirely different student profiles, then it provides no guidance to an individual student or her caregivers about her achievement or what she needs to do to improve. There are few things more inequitable than hiding the path to success.

Inequity is woven into our current grading practices in an even more obvious way: categories included in grades such as “effort,” “growth,” and “participation” are based entirely on a teacher’s subjective judgments. We know that teachers interpret student behaviors differently based on the student’s race, gender or socioeconomic status. Including these criteria makes a grade more reflective of how the teacher interprets a student’s actions than what the student knows and can do.

Perhaps most powerfully, grades significantly influence how a student feels and thinks about a course, a subject and even herself. Many of us can recall how the grades we received affected our self-image about what we were “good at.” When groups of students believe that school is not for them, we have to wonder how their grades, and the way they were graded, shapes that identity.

Our complicated and inequitable grading system isn’t the fault of teachers; we’ve never had permission or tools to examine our century-old practices with a critical eye. In my 20 years as a teacher and then as a principal, grading never seemed open for discussion. When I commiserated with other teachers and principals, we all knew that how students were being grading wasn’t fair, wasn’t accurate, and didn’t support learning, but challenging it seemed too overwhelming and filled with pitfalls. Grading is rarely included in pre-service, induction, or ongoing professional development -- an ironic and embarrassing oversight, considering that grades drive all major decisions about our students, including promotion and graduation.

Fortunately, teachers throughout the country are beginning to confront inequitable grading practices. They learn the benefits of grading on a 1-4 scale instead of a 100-point scale, not awarding extra credit, considering the most recent performance as opposed to averaging scores, and separating academic mastery from behaviors and subjective judgments. They consider more effective ways to give feedback, and how using grading as a classroom management strategy (“I’ll subtract points from your final if you misbehave”) undercuts learning and undermines equity. In the best situations, teachers learn through collaborative action research; they test alternate grading practices in their classrooms, share results with colleagues and repeat the cycle throughout the year. I now work as a consultant, partnering with schools and districts to make grading more accurate and fair. Teachers are surprised and empowered to find that with more accurate and equitable grading, their students feel a stronger sense of ownership, control and hope -- three feelings that traditional grading systems don’t promote -- and most importantly, student failure rates decrease dramatically.

Discussions about grading, like all conversations about equity, are hard, emotional and confusing. But we need to recognize that our grading practices exert enormous influence on how our students learn, especially those who have been historically underserved. Making our grading practices more accurate and fair is the most important kind of equity work; it confronts a deeply ingrained part of our education system, and transforms it so that instead of perpetuating disparate outcomes, it supports success for every student.

Joe Feldman is the CEO of Crescendo Education Group, which partners with schools and districts throughout the country to improve grading and assessment practices. He is a former high-school teacher, principal and district administrator in California, New York City, and Washington, D.C.

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