Equitable Grading

Paloma Esquivel’s recent article in the Los Angeles Times about grading practices is mindbogglingly contradictory. The headline says that schools are “ditching the old way of grading” in light of skyrocketing numbers of Ds and Fs brought on largely due to COVID-related changes in education. The article begins by referring to a teacher who became increasingly frustrated a few years ago with the fact that grading “had become a points game.” His solution? He “has done away with points entirely. He no longer gives students homework and gives them multiple opportunities to improve essays and classwork. The goal is to base grades on what students are learning, and remove behavior, deadlines and how much work they do from the equation.”

This sounds lovely, but it is a false dichotomy. I will not address homework here, because that is a separate issue and one I have discussed previously. To imply, though, that basing grades on what students are learning is a new concept is laughable. Effective grading has always been based on what students are learning. Furthermore, to suggest that using points has nothing to do with what students are learning is equally laughable. If, after all, a teacher gives students a quiz with ten questions designed to gauge the student’s mastery of content, and the student misses three of the ten questions, it is neither inequitable nor unrelated to learning to give that student a grade of 7/10 or 70/100 or 35/50 or whatever scale is used in grading the quiz. In other words, it is quite possible to base grades on what students are learning and still utilize points.

That move away from points is, Esquivel writes, part of a trend of “moving away from traditional point-driven grading systems, aiming to close large academic gaps among racial, ethnic and economic groups.” This is both a false dichotomy and an insult to any student considered to be disadvantaged by their racial, ethnic or economic group because the unmistakable implication is that such students are not capable of learning well enough to achieve a good grade.

Esquivel continues, “Los Angeles and San Diego Unified — the state’s two largest school districts, with some 660,000 students combined — have recently directed teachers to base academic grades on whether students have learned what was expected of them during a course — and not penalize them for behavior, work habits and missed deadlines.” Again, this is making an unfair implication that utilizing points automatically and necessarily does not result in a grade based on actual learning.

There is another dangerous element to this too, though. Eliminating behavior and missed deadlines from grading serves only to create a false concept among students that those things do not matter. In reality, though, both matter. Or at least they are supposed to matter. That behavior matters regardless of performance is something that our culture is increasingly coming to terms with; thing, for example, of how many professional athletes are now disciplined or even released because of their off-field behavior, regardless of how well they perform during game time. Movie stars and television personalities, politicians, business executives… All are being increasingly held accountable for behavior even when it is not directly related to the performance of their job. It is not, then, inappropriate, nor is it unfair, for bad behavior to impact a student’s grade. And to say that missed deadlines should not apply is truly silly. See how well and how long it lasts trying to tell your employer that deadlines shouldn’t apply to you…for whatever reason. The notion that allowing students to revise essays or retake tests means deadlines have to be eliminated is simply not true.

Esquivel quotes Alison Yoshimoto-Towery, L.A. Unified’s chief academic officer, as saying, “It’s teaching students that failure is a part of learning. We fall. We get back up. We learn from the feedback that we get.” Again, this is true. Again, it is not new. And again, it does not negate a points-based grading system. But Yoshimoto-Towery claims that traditional grading systems have been used to “justify and to provide unequal educational opportunities based on a student’s race or class.” This is patently false, and again such an implication serves only to insult students and their families by implying that some students just cannot succeed without “the system” being manipulated in their favor.

The COVID pandemic, Esquivel writes, gave teachers a new insight, as teachers suddenly “saw how some teenagers were caring for younger siblings while trying to do their own work and witnessed the impact of the digital divide as students with spotty internet access struggled to log on to class.” Do some teenagers have more responsibilities than others outside of school? Of course. Does that impact the amount of time those students have to do homework? Certainly. Does it mean that those students do not need to master content at the same level as other students? No. Internet access is a valid concern, but one that serves only to reinforce the importance of in-person learning, not one that means that grading scales and systems need to be chucked. Carol Alexander, director of A-G intervention and support for L.A. Unified, said that the pandemic heightened awareness of such differences, “but those different circumstances of learning have always been present.” Quite right. And despite them, students of all ethnicities and socioeconomic classes have always found a way to succeed if they—and their parents—prioritize their education.

The West Contra Costa Unified district, which is majority Latino, issued a memo last year encouraging its secondary teachers to give a five-day period to turn in work. Makes sense amidst COVID. The memo also said, “Assignments, exams, quizzes, or projects will be marked ‘Missing’ until completed” rather than be given a zero. Missing assignments would “not be given a zero, but rather a failure to turn in or F in the gradebook to maintain the relative mathematical validity of the gradebook.” This is nothing more than fancy footwork; an assignment that is missing is still missing, and therefore ungradable, regardless of what it is called or how it is entered in a gradebook. Presumably if that assignment were never turned in the student would never receive a grade for it—or for the class.

Next Esquivel cites Placer Union High School District, which directed its teachers “to base grades on ‘valid evidence of a student’s content knowledge and not…on evidence that is likely to be influenced by a teacher’s implicit bias nor reflect a student’s circumstances.’” If that’s a novel idea, that’s terrible. Of course student’s grades should be based on evidence of content knowledge! There is no place for teacher bias in grading. Notice, though, that the statement also says that grades should not “reflect a student’s circumstances.” Exactly! Grading systems should be fair and consistent across the board—regardless of any extraneous factors (including ethnicity, socioeconomic status or any other circumstances). Esquivel, and the memos and directives she cites, like to use the word “equity.” Equity means “fairness or justice in the way people are treated.” That means treating all students fairly and not treating them differently based on any factor other than mastery of content and completion of course assignments. The Placer board policy says, in part, “A teacher shall base students’ grades on impartial, consistent observation and evaluation of students’ learning and their proficiency in Essential Learning Outcomes.” Again…duh!

Shockingly, Esquivel writes that prior to the pandemic, “In Los Angeles, the district had begun to train teachers on practices including basing grades on whether students are meeting academic standards.” Whatever else student grades had been based on before I would love to know. If grades were truly being given on the basis of something other than meeting academic standards then there was a real problem. “In the recent guidance,” Esquivel wrote, “teachers were directed to base final academic grades on the ‘level of learning demonstrated in the quality of work, not the quantity of work completed.’” I do not understand the idea that a grade would be based on a quantity of work completed. Presumably all students would be assigned the same work. If some completed all of it, but did so poorly, that should be reflected in their grades. If some completed only a little of it, that too should be reflected in the grades. Even if 15% of assigned work was completed perfectly, that leaves 85% of the work undone. Unless work is being assigned purely as busywork, no one could demonstrate mastery of a course by completing only 15% of the work assigned.

Esquivel quoted Yoshimoto-Towery as saying, “Just because I did not answer a test question correctly today doesn’t mean I don’t have the capacity to learn it tomorrow and retake a test. Equitable grading practices align with the understanding that as people we learn at different rates and in different ways and we need multiple opportunities to do so.” This is both true and false. Answering a question incorrectly today does not mean the one answering could not learn the correct answer and get it right tomorrow—or next week—or next year. That’s true. But if the standard or expectation is that you should know it today, and you do not, it is not unfair or inequitable to tell you that you got it wrong today.

Incomprehensively, Esquivel says that “shifting away from traditional grading to basing grades on whether students have mastered standards is not easy.” I would love to know what Esquivel, or any of the Los Angeles area educators she references, think traditional grading was based on. To her credit, Esquivel does quote Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute as pointing out that telling students that deadlines do not matter does not prepare students “for successful careers or citizenship.”

Thomas Guskey, author of On Your Mark: Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting, told Esquivel that reforming the grading system is “not about watering down expectations; it’s about ensuring that grades are meaningful and fair.” With that I can agree. Grades need to be meaningful and fair. If they have not been then that needs to be fixed. Let’s just be careful that in the process of pursuing that meaning and fairness we do not achieve the opposite.

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