By Joe Feldman
The battle for equity in our schools is not only a fight to guarantee access to great teaching and high-quality learning environments, programs, and materials. The battle for equity also includes the practices and policies that teachers use to describe students’ success or failure in school. An issue often overlooked, grading, is of critical importance. Grades determine so many decisions made about our children: whether they are promoted, qualify to play on the athletic field, graduate, receive scholarships, and get accepted to college. Unfortunately, in too many schools and classrooms, teachers often unwittingly assign grades in ways that are unfair and make success more difficult for black and other underserved children. Teachers go to great lengths to identify what percentage quizzes, homework, tests, extra credit, and class participation count towards the overall grade, but the seemingly objective way educators determine grades are often inaccurate, hide student achievement, and actually perpetuate achievement gaps.
First, teachers inject subjectivity and biases into their grading. In much the way that schools’ disciplinary actions often disproportionately punish African-American, Latino, low-income, and students with special needs, too often traditional grading practices are often corrupted by implicit racial, class, and gender biases that affect individual teachers’ grading. Teachers often include in grades a student’s “effort” or “participation”—a subjective judgment about that student which may have nothing to do with how much the student has learned.
Second, traditional grading rewards students with privilege and punishes students without them. When teachers award points for completing homework and extra credit, they are giving advantages to students with greater resources—those with college educated parents who are available at home and can help with homework or the extra credit assignments—and making it harder for students who have weaker education backgrounds and fewer supports.
Third, grading is often based on calculations that depress student achievement and do not account for progress students make. A student may fail early on, but if they dramatically improve, their initial grades of F combined with subsequent grades of A average to a C for their final grade. This is a mathematically unsound approach that punishes students who have early struggles and conceals their progress and final achievement.
Even though teachers are dedicated to having every student succeed, they have never been trained in how to grade. They grade how they were graded, and perpetuate the same unfair and biased methods. Fortunately, new research has illuminated the harms of traditional grading and identified more equitable grading practices that are based on sound mathematical principles that (1)don’t average performance over time, (2)value growth and knowledge instead of environment or behavior, and (3) build soft skills like teamwork and communications skills without including them in grades. Grades based on these approaches have been shown to reduce failure rates, particularly for historically underserved students, and empowers teachers to create more caring classrooms.
But ensuring that schools grade students equitably isn’t just the responsibility of teachers and principals. Parents have a crucial role to play. Parents can begin by asking their child’s teacher a simple question: What would be my child’s grade if it were based solely on their academic performance? This can start an important and clarifying discussion with the teacher while encouraging the entire school to tackle a problem many have been unwilling to address. It is pertinent that parents understand what grades mean. As educators it is important that we ensure grades clearly communicate a student’s academic performance?
It’s time for parents and teachers to ask these questions about grading. If we expect our children to succeed in school, we need to be sure that they are graded accurately and fairly. If we believe that our students can compete on the world stage, then we’d better make sure that we have grades that tell us clearly if they’re ready.
Joe Feldman is a former teacher, school and district administrator who is the founder of the Oakland, CA-based Crescendo Education Group, which helps educators introduce more equitable grading practice.
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