Understanding Equitable Grading Jargon


Grading for equity, a concept popularized by consultant Joe Feldman, seeks to replace traditional grading concepts which use measurable inputs and outcomes, including class attendance and participation, test scores, and completed assignments, with Equitable Grading that relies on “Accuracy” “Bias Resistance” and “Motivation”. Although, as we will see, Equitable Grading can cause confusion for teachers, students, and parents, and reduces clear metrics by which students can be measured. 

Equitable grading is making its way into more K-12 public schools. So, Parents Defending Education has created this resource to help parents understand common Grading for Equity jargon.

Equity- 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. 

Traditional Grading– This grading practice is most likely what parents and grandparents were graded on when they were in school. According to Common Goal Systems Inc., an educational technology company in traditional grading, “students are primarily measured by the percentage of work successfully completed.” Usually, schools use a A-F scale that corresponds with percentages from 0 -100%. 

Equitable Grading- “Grading for Equity”, has been popularized by Joe Feldman. It refers to a system of grading that attempts to remove perceived bias from grading and have all students reach the same academic outcome, no matter how they got there. For example, if a student misses class and does not submit homework, but shows mastery of a subject at the end of a course, then that student would get the same grade as a student who also showed mastery at the end of a course but also turned in homework on time and had perfect attendance. 

Accuracy- One of Grading for Equity’s three pillars (the others are “bias resistance” and “motivation”). According to an article from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, accuracy should reflect a student’s academic performance and not take into account their behavior.  In other words, the goal of accuracy in Grading for Equity is not measuring student subject mastery, but rather, to exclude supposed “bias”.  

Also, it refers to grades reflecting a student’s current level of understanding rather than their cumulative grade.  For example, if Sally takes a test today and scores a 90%, but for the rest of the semester she had very bad scores giving her a 60% her “accurate” grade in Grading for Equity is a 90% because that is her grade now.

Bias- Bias resistance is one of Grading for Equity’s three pillars (the other two are “accuracy” and “motivation”). Grading for Equity aims to implement grading practices that overcome “bias”, “Grading practices must counteract institutional biases that have historically rewarded students with privilege and punished those without, and also must protect student grades from our own implicit biases.” A criticism of Grading for Equity (and Equity in general) is that there is no defined outcome that indicates when bias has actually been eliminated in grading. According to equitable grading practices, teachers may exhibit bias when: offering extra credit, giving zeros for cheating, penalizing late work, and docking students for poor attendance or classroom behavior.

Motivation- Motivation is another of Grading for Equity’s three pillars (the others are “bias resistance” and “accuracy”.)  Equitable grading seeks to grow intrinsic motivation, “Equitable grading builds intrinsic motivation, empowering students with self-regulation and ownership over their learning. For example, we can teach students that doing homework is important not because the teacher awards 10 points for completing it but because the homework is designed to help them learn—a means-end relationship that is borne out on the summative assessment.” However, as we see with the other definitions, “equitable grading” robs students of opportunities to increase their grade through hard work, or experience consequences of not studying. 

Standards-Based Grading-  Sometimes shortened to SBG, standards-based grading measures a student’s progress toward specific learning objectives. This contrasts with traditional grading, which typically measures a percentage of work completed as well as assessments. A notable difference, as seen in the screenshot below, is that Traditional Grading is measurable, based on the overall percentage a student got correct on assignments throughout the quarter or semester.  The SBG grading reflects teachers assigning points based on their assessment of a student and that assessment does not include homework completion, participation or any other work habits. The grade is only reflective of their mastery of the subject as shown on formative and summative assessments. 

Rolling gradebook- A rolling gradebook includes all assignments and tests from the semester or year.  A quarterly gradebook includes only those from the quarter, so each quarter a student “starts over”.  Indeed, this gives them a new opportunity to succeed, however, it does little to reinforce study skills and the consequences, or benefits of consistent studying.  

Summative Assessments- Assessments conducted at the end of a learning period to evaluate students’ overall understanding and mastery of the material. Equitable grading practices, like those implemented in Portland Public Schools in Oregon, calls on teachers to “base grades on summative assessments, instead of classwork, homework, formative assessments.” 

Context- In Equitable Grading, context refers to a student’s particular circumstance when giving them a grade.  It may include socioeconomic factors, cultural background, and learning styles.  The goal of including “context” into equitable grading is “bias reduction”.   One example of where this comes up is encouraging teachers not to count homework as part of a grade.  A 2019 Harvard Graduate School of Education article states, “… homework is often a filter for privilege, that students who have resources at home, whether they be internet access, or caregivers who have a college education or who have time to help them… those students are more likely to complete homework compared to the students who don’t have those resources. When we include a student’s performance on homework in the grade, we are rewarding students who have those resources and punishing those who don’t.”

Mastery- Traditionally, mastery means that a student understands a subject and can correctly answer test questions or explain a subject to their teacher or peers.  However, Grading for Equity has turned “mastery” on its head to refer to a students’ subject mastery at a specific point in time.  This means that instead of a student’s grade reflecting their performance throughout the semester, it only reflects a point in time. As such, previous quiz and homework grades, good or bad, are irrelevant. It is also referred to as competency-based.

Racial Disparities– Schools will implement Grading for Equity when racial disparities appear in student academic outcomes. For example, if the average test score for white students is 90 and the average test score for black students is 85, that is a racial disparity. Grading for Equity attempts to “correct” this by having all races of students end up at the same outcome. You’ll also hear this referred to as “narrowing the gap” or “closing the achievement gap.” (We want ALL students to succeed so of course we want to narrow and close these gaps—but not by lowering the bar or engineering a preferred outcome in the name of “equity.”) 

Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT)- This educational approach emphasizes the importance of integrating students’ cultural backgrounds and experiences into the learning environment, including grading practices. This sounds like a good thing but often manifests itself in practices like affinity groups that separate students based on race and having students acknowledge their unconscious racial biases. Grading for Equity falls under the umbrella of Culturally Responsive Teaching.