Schools are committed to improving equity and closing achievement gaps, but they have their blind spots. Student grades — ostensibly an objective, fair, and accurate reflection of a student’s academic performance and used to make important decisions about students — are rife with bias and provide an inaccurate reflection of what students know. In fact, grading policies actually help fuel achievement gaps, reinforcing the differences in family resources and support based on students’ race and income. In schools around the country, educators, often unwittingly, are using grading practices that are flawed, outdated, and undermine student success.
While grades are assumed to reflect what a student knows and has mastered, they more often reflect many diverse aspects of a student’s performance beyond academic proficiency including “soft skills,” behaviors, attendance, participation, and effort. This combination of factors that are often subjectively evaluated makes it impossible to discern the student’s particular strengths and weaknesses across all of these aspects, thereby rendering the grade vague and without meaning.
Inaccurate and biased grading isn’t actually the fault of teachers. Grading is not addressed either in teacher preparation or within professional development during a teacher’s career, so teachers are left to choose their own way to grade, guided by their best sense but uninformed by either research or best practices.
And because grading practices vary from teacher to teacher, grades often are more reflective of a teacher’s unique approach to grading than the student’s performance. That inconsistency alone should compel us to tackle grading.
What’s worse is that traditional grading practices are often corrupted by implicit racial, class, and gender biases. It is well documented that schools’ disciplinary actions often disproportionately punish African-American, Latino, low-income, and special education students, and similar, often unintentional biases, can impact aspects of individual teachers’ grading. Even beyond implicit biases, students with greater resources are more likely to complete homework, earn extra credit, and get points for behavior and “doing stuff” regardless of whether they actually learn. Conversely, students who have weaker education backgrounds and fewer supports, and who therefore are less likely to complete homework and earn extra credit, and whose behavior may be misinterpreted because of teachers’ implicit biases, are likely to be penalized even when they show growth and learning.
Equally important, most teachers use grading practices that use mathematically unsound calculations that depress student achievement and progress. An F and an A average as a C, for example, regardless of the student’s progress and final achievement — a mathematically unsound way of measuring progress over time and one that punishes students for early struggles. These and other traditional ways of grading conflict with contemporary beliefs about growth mindset and encouraging students to get better through practice and experimentation.
What Does Equitable Grading Practice Look Like
Grading is like electricity: it flows throughout classrooms, but we don’t ever really see it. That means that the first step to improve grading is to identify and examine those practices that are inequitable, often without us even realizing it, and envisioning practices that are more equitable — more accurate, motivating, and bias-resistant.
New research has helped to develop more equitable grading practices that use sound mathematical principles that don’t average performance over time, value growth and knowledge instead of environment or behavior, and build soft skills like teamwork and communication skills without including them in grades. Grades based on these approaches have been found to reduce grade inflation and failure rates, and to create more empowered schools and less stressful classrooms.
What Parents Can Do
To talk with teachers about grading, you don’t have to be armed with research data. All you need to do is ask simple questions:
• What is my child’s grade in your class?
• How is a student’s grade calculated?
• How much of my child’s grade is based on what course content (or standards) my child has learned, and how much is based on other factors like participation, extra credit, whether they completed homework, etc.?
• If my child’s grade were only based on their level of content (or standards) mastery and did not include their behaviors — participation, extra credit, whether they completed their homework — what grade would s/he have?
• If there is a difference between my child’s grade and the grade s/he would have if the grade only reflected her academic content mastery, how might the grade send a confusing message to students about her academic performance?
This can begin a discussion with the teacher and encourage the entire school to tackle the problem many schools have been unwilling to address: What does a grade mean and how can we ensure the grade clearly communicates a student’s academic performance?
Asking your child’s teacher questions about grading, and talking to other parents and school officials about what really matters in grading, is a significant step to helping schools become more equitable. When grades accurately capture student performance, they can tell us if young people are truly making progress and are prepared for success, and can combat, rather than perpetuate, the persistent achievement disparities in our schools.
Joe Feldman is a former teacher and school and district administrator who is the founder of the Oakland, Calif.-based Crescendo Education Group, which helps educators introduce more equitable grading practice. He is the author of Grading for Equity (Corwin, 2018).