Are we truly grading for equity?

Changing grading policies are just a start if we want all students to learn

by Molly Krulewitch, Business Manager

High school is a turbulent time filled with learning, relationships, first jobs, and self discovery. Unclear expectations should not be another stressor in an already jammed-packed life. 

Who knew one of the most confusing topics to explain to your parents about high school would be the grading policies in each of your teachers’ classrooms? 

Grading for Equity

In 2018, Joe Feldman published “Grading for Equity,” a book about how to create more equitable classrooms by changing the grading policies. One main concept is that teachers should grade based on cumulative knowledge and skills which are shown in a summative test. The book includes directives such as not giving a grade for homework, not penalizing students for being late, absent or not participating, and not giving extra credit. Staff began studying Feldman’s book in September in an effort to improve and standardize grading practices throughout the school. While the effort is vital to move toward more equitable grading practices, the implementation of some of Feldman’s practices may not be as effective as hoped. 

Maria Stevens, executive director of learning and teaching for the district, said the decision to look into the concepts explained by Feldman was the result of a number of factors. 

“Grading for equity came from a number of things. One was consistent data on student groups who do well and those who don’t,” Stevens said. She explained that the goal was to “become a school system where race and ethnicity are not predictors of student success.” 

The United States Civil Rights Data Collection states that black students in 2017-2018 made up about 7.4 percent of Shoreline’s enrolled population, but only 2.1 percent of the ‘gifted and talented’ students. These statistics are important because it shows that white students make up a disproportionately larger percentage of ‘gifted’ students. 

According to Stevens, the school district has taken this issue on “by understanding what the barriers are and how to address them… One common barrier is how we grade… [this] prompted work across the secondary schools to try to dismantle grading practices that have a lot of bias in them.” 

Participation grades are currently under question. “It’s up to individual teachers what participation means and looks like… that’s just really wrought with bias,” Stevens said. “We’re trying to reflect and evaluate how we can do grading differently that meets our goals and also that really reflects student learning and not just hoop jumping.” 

Grading for student learning and not just on compliance is, indeed, important. As a person who takes a fair bit of AP classes and has a part-time job, the most enjoyable classes have been where the teacher doesn’t give more work than necessary and offers extra time to help students. These teachers are most often respected or liked among students as opposed to teachers who give work just to give students work. There is a lot of complaining about those specific teachers and how they don’t respect our time, especially while trying to keep a job and still have time to hang out with friends. So, yes, eliminating “busy work” benefits students by not taking up their time with non-essential work. 

Yet, there’s a fine line between not giving busy work and entirely eliminating homework and deadlines.

There’s a fine line between not giving busy work and entirely eliminating homework and deadlines.”

Additionally, some teachers have been incorporating the “Grading for Equity” directives such as grading on a one to four point scale, allowing for test retakes, as well as allowing late work and maintaining a no zero policy. Some of these teachers have been holding discussions with their students about these policy changes in an effort to choose the directives that most benefit their unique classrooms – with input from those most impacted: the students. 

But the bottom line is that race and ethnicity shouldn’t be predictors of student success, and neither should economic status or any other factors that students can’t control. Homework should only be given when necessary, and if students aren’t able to show that they’re learning the material or growing at all over the course of the semester, there needs to be a conversation with the student about how the teacher and school can best support them. These conversations have to go beyond grading policy.

The benefits of one-to-one tutoring

The definition of the word equity is meeting others where they are, which is one of the tactics raised by The Winters Group, a global diversity and inclusion consulting firm. They state that “meeting others where they are means meeting people within their intersections of power and oppression.” An effective and easy way that this could be implemented in schools is to have extra help for students who are at a socio-economic disadvantage such as individualized tutoring which is acknowledged as one of the most powerful methods of increasing student success. 

According to a study conducted by Roseanna Ander, Jonathan Guryan, and Jens Ludwig in the Chicago school system, “individualized tutoring made a vast difference in helping students most at risk for failing.” 

If tutoring and one-on-one teaching is proven to make a “vast difference” with helping students catch up to grade level, how come there is no assigned budget for tutoring in our district? While equity is certainly a priority in the district, it could seem that some of these practices are a way to increase the graduation rate in order to make our school district look better. I hope that’s not the case. 

On one hand, most jobs do require a high school diploma, so helping more students graduate is a great goal to have, but on the other hand, school is about learning preparatory skills to either get a job and carve a career path, or go to college. If we let people skate by, they’re not actually learning the skills they need to hold a job, let alone go to college. If the district truly cared about making grading more equitable and helping students, they would have a budget for one-on-one education, and not have every single teacher make severe changes to their policies. The one implemented change that all teachers agreed to this year in grading is the no zero policy, where the least a student can receive for doing no work is a 50 percent.  Not everyone agrees this is a good policy. 

“It doesn’t work like that,” said an anonymous teacher. “You don’t get to go into a restaurant and then say: well I don’t have any money to pay you, but I’ll only eat 50 percent of my sandwich,’ that doesn’t make any sense.” From a neurodivergent student perspective, it is more motivating to see a 50 percent in the gradebook and know that my grade won’t be ruined by one assignment. 

However, in “Grading for Equity,” Feldman’s ideal is not awarding any points for homework completion. “I wouldn’t do my homework if it wasn’t for points,” said junior Ava Hjelle, another student with ADHD. In the long run, taking away points for homework diminishes motivation and takes away the reward for time put into growing as a learner. It’s true that not everyone has time to do homework or even necessarily need to in order to succeed in their classes. But why not reward those who can and do while not penalizing those who don’t or can’t. Most teachers will be extremely accommodating if you go to them and open up about your situation whether that just be regarding mental health, home life, or otherwise, they want you to succeed. 

When you graduate high school and enter the real world, effort is rewarded and attendance is required. To hold any job, you need to show up on time and be a team player. Not requiring attendance is not setting students up for success and taking away incentives, such as points or extra credit, for getting extra practice is not helping people who want or in some cases need to be rewarded for their efforts. 

High school isn’t college

People don’t attend high school to be treated like college students. That’s what we go to college for. An anonymous senior said cumulative tests are “terrible.” They put more stress on students because those who have teachers who don’t allow retakes or test corrections only have one chance to show their knowledge. If students have a bad day, it could mess up their whole grade even if they have been putting effort into the class in the form of their ungraded homework.

People don’t attend high school to be treated like a college student. That’s what we go to college for.”

Learning how to advocate for oneself is a skill that students need to learn. Changing a grading system to remove student accountability and add too much individual responsibility is not the way to teach students to reach out for help. Students with home issues, extra responsibilities,  or mental health issues need more support and the school needs to be able to recognize that and provide the help        they need. 

Our grading system is far from perfect, and the students who are most likely to succeed are white, have support at home, and are those who can afford tutors. People of color who are most often screwed over by school districts do deserve equity – meaning that the school district allocates funds for tutors and creates free programs for those who need it because anyone who needs extra help at school should be able to access it. Just switching from one system that drowns students in homework to one that only grades based on cumulative tests doesn’t seem like the equitable solution we need. It’s the devil you know vs. the devil you don’t.