Grading for Equity (Part 1)

Traditional grading practices widely used in American classrooms today may feel fair and balanced to the teachers who use them, but upon examination, it turns out they are often inequitable because they invite implicit bias, reward students who have privilege, and produce grades that are not an accurate picture of what a student knows at the end of a course. Moreover, using grades as a means of extrinsic motivation undermines learning and makes students feel compelled to obtain points however possible. Equitable grading practices, however, ensure that grades are accurate because they use calculations that are mathematically sound, easy to understand, and correctly describe a student’s level of academic performance. They are also motivational because these practices give students a chance at redemption and increase learning.

So how can teachers begin to grade more equitably? The book and course Grading for Equity by Joe Feldman covers the history of traditional grading practices, why they create problems for equity and learning, and how to change them so that grades can be accurate, motivational, and bias resistant. When I read about this course, I was excited to learn about how I could implement more equitable practices and encourage learning rather than obsessing over points.

The element that resonated most with me is the concept of grading students according to their performance on standards, not on the routes they take to achieve those standards. All grades at the end of a unit should be based on whether the student understands the topic. This has several implications for how we calculate grades: no more averages, no more effort points, no more late penalties, and no more homework points. As part of the course, I was able to try out various methods in my own classes and reflect on the challenges and successes associated with them.

When a student’s grade is an average of assignments across the term, a student who comes into a class with more experience, often the result of privileged opportunities like summer courses, tutors, or a parent at home who can help with homework, is able to finish a course with a higher grade even if that student finished the term with the same understanding as the child who started out earning Ds or Cs, but who by the end of the course had also mastered the content and was earning As.

Moreover, when we try to take into account things like effort, we are inviting implicit bias into our grades and are doing a disservice not only to the students who are perceived as not exerting as much effort but also to that student whose grade we bump up. For example, a student with a strong understanding but who also hands in late work (perhaps because they have to care for younger siblings at home) and a student who is nice, always prepared, and seems to be attentive in class but has a weak understanding of the material may both get a B in a class that calculates effort and late penalties. The nice student will have a grade that does not tell them they may need help in understanding the material and so they will not seek it out. I had never considered that possibility in “helping” the student by bumping up their grade for their promptness or politeness, I was actually hurting them in the long run by reinforcing that points matter more than learning. The late student will have a grade that is lower than one which would reflect how much they know for reasons the student may not have any control over.

The thing that most changed how I view grades and grading: eliminating points for homework. If we make everything worth points, then we are creating the very point-focused behaviors that get in the way of learning. When everything is worth points, then it’s never safe for students to make mistakes, even though we know that making mistakes is essential to learning. Instead of working so that they can show what they know on an assessment, students work toward accumulating points in any way they can.

Homework should be a means to an end, not an end unto itself. Even without a grade attached, students will do the homework when doing the homework helps them learn what they need to be successful on summative assessments. Without points, but with copious feedback on their homework assignments, students will begin to focus on their progress toward reaching mastery of the material and not on accumulating points. Instead of asking “Why did I lose points for this?” students now ask, “Can you help me understand why x concept works this way?”

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