Traditional to the Plug on Teachers and Teaching

9 min read

The practice of grading student work has mostly been an afterthought in teacher training and professional development. Grading remains idiosyncratic in most places—largely dependent on rubrics devised by individual teachers and usually rooted in century-old practices, even if they are calibrated using new technologies and software.

Letter-based grading became universal in U.S. public schools by the 1940s. Today, protocols for handing out grades of A–F on a 100-point scale vary from district to district and classroom to classroom. Generally, grading attempts to distill students’ performance on what education researcher Thomas R. Guskey calls a hodgepodge of measures—quizzes, tests, homework, conduct, participation, extra credit, and more—rather than gauging actual student learning.

The process is inconsistent at best, inequitable at worst, critics argue. Reform efforts made over the past two generations—such as the push for portfolio grading that gained traction in the 1980s—largely foundered, as they were viewed as too cumbersome to scale up to large districts and schools.

Now the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic—remote learning and more failing students—twinned with renewed concerns over equity have many educators taking another look at grading. Several models exist, but so-called equitable grading is gaining momentum.

Inherited grading practices have always hurt underserved students, said Joe Feldman, a former teacher and author of Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms. As schools reopen, there is a desire for normalcy, but we shouldn’t rubber-band back to outdated practices, Feldman argues.

Equitable grading involves eliminating the 100-point grade scale and not penalizing students for late work and missed assignments if they can demonstrate subject mastery and even if they must retake tests or redo other assessments along the way.

Feldman says these assessment practices can help address stubborn achievement gaps and streamline the grading hodgepodge. But moves toward equitable grading seem to be rolling out in a patchwork fashion, and not without pushback and confusion.

Because of the way it was implemented, nothing has been standard about it at all. Much has been left open to interpretation, said Samuel Hwang, a junior at Ed W. Clark High School in Las Vegas, a school that has introduced equitable grading. In a lot of ways, things have gotten worse.

The 360,000-student Clark County, Nevada, district, which encompasses Las Vegas, began implementing the policy in the 2021–22 school year, on the heels of the pandemic learning disruptions. They rushed out the new policy just when we got back to school, said Hwang, who serves as a peer tutor. Many students, he said, are habitually late on assignments. If your expectations are lower in terms of behavior and grading, that’s probably what you’re going to get.

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Feldman’s plan in Grading for Equity is a recent iteration of so-called mastery-based or standards-based assessment. With this approach, teachers base grades on a student’s end-of-course command of material, without consideration of attendant factors such as homework, extra credit, or soft-skill behaviors such as punctuality, attendance, handing in assignments on time, and class participation. Learners are afforded extra time and can retake tests or other assessments to demonstrate mastery or raise a grade.

The grade is only reflective of content mastery, said Feldman. People mistakenly assume that grading for equity lowers standards or rigor, but it increases them. You can’t get an A jumping through hoops, so it reduces grade inflation, makes it more rigorous. There’s no more of that haggling (‘Can I get extra credit for bringing cupcakes to the end-of-year party?’). There’s no more bartering and bargaining to get points. Students become less consumed with point accumulation. We can now talk about their understanding.

Feldman essentially frames mastery-based grading as a way of correcting historical imbalances and eliminating biases in traditional grading that he says have posed barriers to success for students of color and those from lower-income families. In his view, grading should no longer reflect factors that students may not have control over, such as whether their after-school life is conducive to finishing homework.The group is a paid consultant to schools and districts of varying sizes. In one recent contract, Crescendo was paid $114,300 to introduce 60 teachers and 30 administrators in California’s Santa Clara Unified District to grading for equity by providing coaching, support, and webinars during the 2021–2022 school year.

Feldman says he has seen firsthand the nagging discomfort many teachers feel toward the existing grading system, which uses points to reward students for behaviors. While some of those behaviors, such as doing homework, may improve learning, they are not point-worthy in and of themselves, he notes.

Stressors ease once grading is motivational rather than punitive, he says, arguing for a coherent 0–4 grading scale to replace the 100-point scale that remains the standard in K–12 classrooms. The latter essentially measures 60 gradations of failure, Feldman points out, and that may not be the message we want to send to students.

Variations of this simplified scale are widely used in standards-based grading, with some schools choosing a 1–5 or 1–4 range. The points reflect levels of skill mastery, with the lowest numbers indicating little or no understanding on the part of the student and the highest representing advanced understanding. Sometimes these figures are still translated into letter grades, but the grades are based on the four or five levels rather than a scale of 100 points.

Critics of grading for equity say there is not enough empirical data or experience to suggest that the purported successes of the approach could work at scale. In many districts that have adopted equitable grading, the process is too new—and still too inconsistent—to yield reliable research data. The complications of the pandemic also thwarted the collection of empirical data, and many educators remain unconvinced of the program’s merit.

But Feldman says his book is replete with research citations, and he produced a 2018 report, School Grading Policies Are Failing Children: A Call to Action for Equitable Grading, with data from external evaluators culled from a survey of grading in two districts before and after they adopted equitable grading practices. The first district, comprising four suburban or rural high schools, surveyed 3,700 grades issued by 24 teachers. The second was an urban district with two middle schools and one high school where 10,000 grades issued by 37 teachers were charted. In both cases the number of Ds and Fs declined, as did the number of As. The report’s data also show a narrowing of achievement gaps between white and nonwhite students and between students of varying socioeconomic backgrounds.

Feldman’s report also provides an analysis of grading from 12 secondary schools that says equitable grading by more than 60 teachers produced grades that more closely correlated with students’ scores on external standardized exams.

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