What is grading for equity?
Traditional grading is based on subject mastery and accuracy, with elements of behavior including class participation and turning in work on time. Grading for equity, however, as the name suggests, seeks to address “inequities” and “bias” in education. In doing so, it incorporates “accuracy” (a misleading term addressed later in this report), “bias-resistance” and “motivation”, all of which arguably, supplant measurable outcomes and subject mastery under the guise of “equity”.
Under equitable grading rubrics, a student who misses classes, fails to turn in homework on time, and gets bad grades, may receive a grade similar to that of a classmate who hands in their homework and attends class if the teacher takes into account “bias” and “motivation”.
Understanding this recent phenomenon in education begins with a brief overview of traditional grading.
Brief history of grading in America
When schooling first started in the United States, it was modeled after what was commonplace in Europe; teachers worked one-on-one with students. As such, grades largely reflected a teacher’s, often idiosyncratic, understanding of a student’s subject comprehension. However, as more students went to school, a public school system evolved, and there became a need for grading to be systematized and consistent.
Moreover, grades needed to be a tool for communicating a student’s success (or lack thereof) between teachers, parents, and administrators. A 2013 paper, “Making the grade: a history of the A–F marking scheme” states,
Consequently, grading systems that had traditionally tended towards the local and the idiosyncratic, and which were designed for internal communication among teachers and families attached to a given school, became forms of external communication and organization as well. Increasingly, reformers saw grades as tools for system-building rather than as pedagogical devices––a common language for communication about learning outcomes.
The A-F grading system became prevalent in the 1940s and, until fairly recently, had widespread use in American k-12 classrooms.
However, in recent years, a concept called “Grading for Equity” has found its way into American k-12 schools.
Who invented grading for equity?
Grading for equity is a concept popularized by Joe Feldman. Feldman spent much of his career in education in roles ranging from teacher to principal. In 2013 he founded Crescendo Education Group. Crescendo Education Group, “has supported K-12 schools, districts, and colleges/universities nationwide to improve grading and assessment practices.”
The website also says, “Crescendo Education Group is a team of consultants – current and former teachers and school / district administrators – who believe that the most powerful way to improve student achievement, particularly for historically underserved populations, is to create powerful learning experiences for the education professionals in schools and districts.”
Notably, some of the clients listed on the group’s website are Philips Andover Academy, whose tuition ranges from $51,000-$66,000 per student, and Georgetown Day School with tuition ranging $41,000-$52,000 per student.
But Feldman’s most well-known project stems from his 2018 book, Grading for Equity.
Where did it come from?
In 2018 Joe Feldman published, Grading for Equity. The first chapter, available as a free download, Feldman describes his motivation for equitable grading,
What if the child has home responsibilities (caring for an older relative or younger siblings) or has her own job in order to contribute to the family income? What if the student who has few supports simply doesn’t know the answers to the homework? What option is there but to submit the work incomplete or late? Clearly, we don’t want to grade students based on their environment or situations beyond their control, but unfortunately, when we use grading practices such as penalizing students for late work, that is often what we do.
But, grading for equity’s biggest goal is overcoming bias. This is further explained in a 2020 article Empowering Students by Demystifying Grading,
How we respond to questions about grading and power is especially crucial for students who generally enter schools already having less power: students of color, students from families experiencing poverty, and students with disabilities. Because the teacher is the only one who judges performance, grading can, and often does, inadvertently undermine equity and perpetuate academic opportunity gaps. Students with parents who were successful in school or have higher income are more likely to have access to academic guidance about what teachers “want”—for instance, what an A essay or a “good” project looks like. In this way, the opacity of traditional grading can perpetuate achievement disparities.
Indeed, students may have different outcomes, some of which can be attributed to poverty, difficult home or family situations, or health. But, to remedy this, Feldman recommends sweeping changes to how all students are evaluated; namely, equitable grading.
How is it used?
Grading for equity relies on the pillars: accuracy, motivation, and bias-resistance.
Accuracy, according to Feldman, ought to reflect a student’s subject mastery. Below is an example of a science grading rubric about molecules. Notably, the “advanced” score merely denotes that a student got all the answers correct. The full grading rubric may be viewed here.
However, grading for equity’s understanding of accuracy is based on a student’s current understanding of a subject, rather than an aggregate grade from the entire semester or quarter. Grading for Equity with Grading for Growth, Part 1 explains that accuracy ought to represent a student’s current level of understanding, “However, “accuracy” also means that grades should represent a student’s current level of understanding rather than the path that they took to reach that understanding. By the end of the semester, we should then see a student’s ultimate level of understanding (at least in the context of the class) rather than some sort of weighted average of their previous attempts and struggles.”
In short, irrespective of a student’s performance throughout the semester, their final may grade may be very high, or very low.
In equitable grading, grades should motivate students to improve their academic performance. Grades should, encourage students to “strive for academic success, persevere, accept struggles and setbacks, and to gain critical lifelong skills.” The Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Ed Magazine describes this as, “Our grading must stop using points to reward or punish, but instead should teach students the connection between means of learning and the ends — how doing homework is valuable not because of how many points the teacher doles out, but because those actions improve a student’s learning.” In other words, grades should not reward motivation (handing in homework on time, showing up to class, participating), but, rather, the marks in and of themselves ought to motivate students.
The Georgia Tech Center for Teaching and Learning defines this as, “Grades should be based on valid evidence of a student’s content knowledge, and not based on evidence that is likely to be corrupted by a teacher’s implicit bias or reflect a student’s environment.”
Most would, hopefully, agree that a student’s grades should be based on their work and subject mastery. However, in practice, grading for equity’s “bias-resistance” emphasizes on a student’s personal situation rather than their work product. Below is a screenshot from Georgia Tech’s equitable grading guidelines.
Under “equitable” practices, a student may turn in late work or cheat with few or no penalties thereby creating little motivation for students to turn in honest work on time. Moreover, this may punish those who do their work fairly, follow rules, and respect deadlines.
How does it work in practice?
Imagine two students in the same math class, Sarah and Naomi.
Sarah- Sarah hands in her homework on time, shows up for class, participates, and goes to the math tutor once per week. Math is not her strong suit, and until the final exam, she averages a B in math. She performs poorly on the final, bringing her final grade to a “C”.
Naomi- Naomi does not hand in her homework on time, often skips class, and cheated on a quiz. Her final exam has an average grade, and she gets a “C” as a final grade.
How do two radically different student performances achieve the same grade?
Under grading for equity, measurable inputs including handing in assignments, attending class, class participation, and correct answers are replaced with a teacher’s assessment of how a student ought to perform. As such, students who do work by attending class and completing homework may, indeed, have the same grade outcomes as students who do little. Indeed, this is by design as equitable grading, as evidenced in its name, seeks to establish equity.
What does this have to do with equity?
To begin, Parents Defending Education’s website defines equity as:
This word is commonly understood to mean fairness or justice, but it is now used by activists to mean something much more specific: equality of outcomes between different racial groups. When you hear activists demand “equity,” what they’re actually saying is that the basic American value of equality of opportunity — that the rules should apply equally to everyone, regardless of race — is racist, because equality of opportunity doesn’t always produce equality of results. The solution is “equity,” or attempting to achieve equality of results through discrimination.
A 2017 report from Feldman titled “Do Your Grading Practices Undermine Equity Initiatives?” addresses this question. He claims that current grading systems do not take into account a student’s home life, socio-economic background and personal struggles. The remedy for this problem is upending objectivity in grading and replacing it with “motivation” and “bias resistance”.
“Making our grading practices more accurate and fair is the most important kind of equity work, confronting a deeply ingrained part of our education system and reforming it to transform an entire organization.”
Recall equity is about creating the same outcomes for everyone rather than treating people as equal but unique individuals.
Indeed, students may have different outcomes, some of which can be attributed to a difficult home life, under-resourced schools, or health issues. However, changing the rubric under which students are graded doesn’t address those underlying issues; it just changes the grades. A traditional grading system that evaluates measurable inputs (homework, attendance, participation) and outcomes (final grades, accuracy) encourages all students to do their best work.