Towards More Equitable Grading

grade photo
Photo by mikefisher821

I’m not sure how many folks know this, but I’m currently entering the dissertation phase in my doctoral program at Northeastern. in fact, I’m hoping to defend my dissertation proposal before the month’s end. One reason this blog has been quiet for so long (until recently) is that I just haven’t made time to write here. I was doing so much writing for graduate school, and coupled with my teaching responsibilities, it was hard to find the time. I should have made the time because documenting my thoughts as I participated in the 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge © (created by Dr. Eddie Moore) reminded me of the critical importance of regular reflection, here, for me as a teacher. I attribute most of my growth as a teacher since 2005, when I started this blog, to regular blogging here.

Back in the day, I sometimes reflected on professional reading on this blog, and sometimes, book clubs resulted. Blogging has fallen by the wayside in favor of Twitter, which makes me sad because sometimes the long-form reflection is better than a tweet thread. The UbD Educators wiki grew out of the reflection I did, and until Wikispaces went defunct, it was a promising project, though I confided to Grant Wiggins that it was hard to find teachers to commit to adding to the wiki. He wasn’t surprised because lack of time makes it difficult. I always say that we make time for the things that are important to us, and this blog is pretty important to me, but I hadn’t made a lot of time for it for some years. I’m going to try to change that, and one thing I want to do is document my thinking as I read Joe Feldman’s Grading for Equity. I joked to a couple of colleagues that I am finally making time to actually read this book, which has been on my radar for a long time, and I realize I should have made the time to read it as soon as it was released because Feldman is citing much of the same research as I am citing in my dissertation. I could have saved myself a lot of searching through the library database!

First of all, I encourage educators to take the quiz How Equitable is Your Grading? on Feldman’s website. If, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, you are examining your curriculum’s diversity, equity, and inclusion, I think that’s great. I think it’s great if you are engaged in movements to #DisruptTexts and #TeachLivingPoets. You also need to take a hard look at your grading practices, too. If, as Feldman says, you are implementing some equitable practices, such as “responsive classrooms, alternative disciplinary measures, diverse curriculum—but meanwhile preserve inequitable grading,” you are perpetuating inequity in schools.

I’m going to start by using Feldman’s “Questions to Consider” at the end of chapter 1. I’ll just answer the first two and update tomorrow with responses to the remaining three questions. Otherwise, this post will be way too long. Maybe it already is!

What are some deep beliefs you have about teenagers? What motivates and demotivates them? Are they more concerned with learning or their grade?

After over 20 years of teaching mostly teenagers, I have concluded that a lot of adults expect them to be more “adult” because they tend to look more adult. What I mean is they expect teenagers have developed an internal locus of control. Not even all adults have an internal locus of control. Teenagers tend to still mostly have an external locus of control, which means they are more likely to attribute a poor grade to a teacher’s lack of regard for them instead of a lack of proficiency on their part. I think we need to remember that when we are grading. As such, they might be motivated to earn good grades (carrot) or avoid bad ones (stick), but grades in an of themselves don’t motivate them to learn. I think they do help give students some kind of yardstick they can use to judge their performance, but I didn’t think grades had even this utility until I started doing research. Grades might not communicate what we think or wish they would, but they communicate something. I think students are much more concerned with grades rather than learning when they are in classes in which all high-stakes assessments result in grades that cannot be improved through revision and in which all earned grades are averaged together. If, however, they are in a classroom that encourages revision and focuses on proficiency, they focus a lot more on learning. Teenagers actually love to learn things, but the trick is that teachers need to communicate the relevance, and the wrong answer is “I’m the adult, so I say it’s relevant.” And if what you are teaching isn’t relevant, you need to figure out how to Marie Kondo the curriculum.

What is your vision for grading? What do you wish grading could be for students, particularly the most vulnerable populations? What do you wish grading could be for you? In which ways do current grading practices meet those expectations, and in which ways do they not?

Before I started my research, I wanted to eliminate grades a measure of student learning. There is a movement to do just that, and many schools successfully use other methods for reporting learning, and yes, their students still get into college. I no longer think grades are entirely useless. I think we have just perpetuated inequitable grading for so long that I couldn’t figure out another way aside from burning the whole system down. Now I advocate for proficiency-based grading, and that means that students might revise their work, sometimes several times, in order to reach a level of proficiency in learning content and skills. In almost any aspect of life, we have chances to practice a skill until we master it, and no one says it is unfair. There was a time when every musician we know didn’t know how to play their instrument, when every athlete didn’t know how to play their sport. But we don’t judge their current competence by where they started. I think grading based on reaching proficiency, whenever it happens or however it happens, is much more equitable.

My dissertation is a dissertation in practice, meaning I need to take an action step and evaluate its success. My action step is to create a proficiency-based grading and authentic assessment guide for a pilot group of faculty, to implement the practices therein (along with a focus group), to evaluate the guide’s success and revise it accordingly, and to present the findings to my colleagues. Feldman’s ideas will be invaluable in framing the guide, grounded also in my own research. I am hoping implementing this action step will make grading less of a chore for me, too—I related so much to Feldman’s argument that teachers don’t like grading (p. 5).

What I need to do is figure out a system that is more mathematically sound and use it. I am doing fairly well on most equitable grading practices according to Feldman’s quiz, with the exception of that one. For example, I already:

  • Don’t weigh homework much. Homework is preparation for class, such as reading and writing. I don’t even really use the homework category in my online grade book for graded work.
  • Don’t calculate behavior and executive function skills in my grade.
  • Allow students to revise their work and replace the grade entirely with the new grade.
  • Don’t subscribe to the idea that grades need to fall on a bell curve or that I need a certain distribution of grades.
  • Don’t count participation as a grade category. It is part of the rubric in a Socratic seminar.

I do not have students asking me to create homework assignments, and they mostly do the preparation I ask them to do. Students sometimes turn work in late for me, but it doesn’t bother me. Other than that, I don’t feel I miss anything by excluding executive function skills. Students actually work harder knowing the grade can entirely be replaced if the work improves. I don’t subscribe to fears about grade inflation or worries that students have too many high grades, and I find conversations with others who are still hung up here to be maddeningly frustrating. I have long felt participation was too slippery to calculate, and sometimes students are super engaged but don’t say as much. I still get excellent participation from students without grading it.

More tomorrow on the first chapter reflection questions. Let me know if you want to “book group” this book.

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