More students than ever are failing. In a recent meeting with math leaders, we considered the case of high school mathematics grades in a district where failure rates had increased by 34%. We were stunned. What to do?
The pandemic is one source of the blame: students are disconnected or disengaged and teachers struggle to effectively teach across digital learning gaps. But as the pandemic has laid bare many of the inequities in our society, it has also revealed that our grading system is broken.
That is because when we discuss failing students, we are discussing grades from traditional grading systems. Traditional grading systems score assignments and tests on a percentage scale, typically with incomplete assignments being given a zero. Under any circumstances, it is a deeply flawed system. Under the current crisis, it is a failed system. Rather than accept these failures, we should take this opportunity to adopt equitable grading practices.
Traditional Grading Systems and Inequity
The traditions around grading in this country are deep and cultural. Many Americans grew up with the A to F system of grading where an A is 90 – 100% and F is anything below 60%. The same verbiage populates our conversations to rate food, movies, athletes, musicians, and our own performance. This rating system is so ubiquitous, we forget that the original application was to rank students.
Issues emerge when the grades turn into labels. “He is a C student,” makes the grade sound like it is a condition. Grades become part of a student’s identity. Worse yet is the fact that the only one of these letters actually corresponds to a word: F = Failure. This word has a powerfully negative impact on students. To describe a learner as a failure damages a student’s motivation, participation, and future academic and professional achievements.
Standards-Based Grading and Language
The standards-based grading movement has suggested that it is not just about fixing the old grading system, it is about replacing it. Our traditional grading system must be replaced by new language, ways of measuring and assessing, and methods of communication. Rather than talking about “B” students, we describe students that are approaching proficiency.
Language is important. Standards-based grading language describes learning as a process and that students are all growing. In particular, I am fond of the term “not enough evidence.” This term captures the core philosophy of the standards-based grading movement. Grades should indicate student performance relative to learning expectations. This is a term for students who have not completed enough assessments for a teacher to determine where that student is in their learning. There is not enough evidence to judge.
During this crisis, there are so many reasons that students may not have been able to supply enough evidence of his/her learning in order for teachers to assess the student’s learning. The pandemic profoundly impacts students and their families. Students lack reliable internet connections or devices and may struggle to navigate new systems to find and complete assignments. Some students have new family obligations that displace their ability to focus on their studies. Should these students be told that they are failures? Or do we consider instead that there is simply not enough evidence to evaluate their learning at this time.
Equitable Grading Practices
Standards-based grading is about closing equity gaps and improving the performance of students everywhere. (Feldman, 2019) It is about increasing student engagement and graduation rates. It is about supporting growth mindsets and student success. Here are two best practices promoting equitable grading practices in your schools:
Focus on Student Learning: Students need multiple opportunities to demonstrate understanding. Allow students to provide additional revisions, corrections, and refinements on their assignments. Allow your students to demonstrate their learning as well as they can and provide meaningful feedback. These strategies will emphasize that learning is a process and promote growth mindsets.
Report Out Recent Performance: Traditional grading paradigms use averaging techniques and weighted averages. These systems give more importance to some types of assignments and less importance to others. These weighing systems do not align with the ability for students to demonstrate understanding.
Instead, newer evidence of learning is more valid. This evidence should be considered most when considering what to put onto report cards. If a student demonstrates a key misunderstanding on an assessment, and then a teacher uses that information in a truly formative way (Popham, 2008, Wiliam, 2014) and the student demonstrates understanding on a later assessment, the “formative” assessment should not be included in the final grade. Teachers need to evaluate the performance of students as it evolves. They should consider student performance and report on performance relative to learning expectations. This is fair, just, and equitable.
Making the Shift Toward Equitable Grading Systems
The problems with traditional grading systems have been obvious to grading experts for many years. Nonetheless, change has been slow. And this is understandable, as the structural changes needed are not easy changes to make. Firstly, there are considerations of tradition and culture. Secondly, educators have established ways of working. Thirdly, teachers have developed systems that are difficult to re-engineer. Lastly, many of our tools and technology perpetuate traditional grading systems.
Systemic change requires systematic solutions, involving everyone in the system: teachers, principals and other leaders, parents, and students. By nature, these types of solutions are incredibly complex to implement. But because something is difficult does not mean it should not be done. In these unprecedented times, systemic inequities are more visible and shocking than ever. The inequitable practices of traditional grading systems are now acute. Perhaps, as we recover from this pandemic, we will see that now is an opportunity to change. An opportunity to emerge from this crisis more compassionate, supportive, and equitable.
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