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Consistency vs. Grade Inflation: A Tough Balancing Act for Districts

Ensuring grades are fair and meaningful is not as easy as A, B, C (or D or F).

As they address the lingering affects of the COVID-19 pandemic, districts are struggling to square fairness and transparency in grading with a longstanding problem: consistency. Students with similar mastery of academic concepts often get different grades if they go to different schools in same district—or have different teachers in same school, administrators fear.

Variations in how teachers approach extra credit work, points for classroom participation, and penalties for late assignments make grades less consistent and less reliable. That’s why more districts have taken on the complicated, sometimes contentious work of untangling the assumptions baked into students’ grades and how those assumptions affect their learning.

In a quest for consistency, they’ve adopted policies that de-emphasize formative assignments, like homework; give students multiple chances to redo work; raise minimum scores from zero to 50, so that grade bands for A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s, and F’s hold equal weight in a student’s cumulative grade; and establish clear rubrics to determine when students have mastered a skill or concept.

“We want to ensure that we’re communicating student progress in an accurate and meaningful way to our students and our families,” said Becca Meyer, director of the assessment department for the Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nev., a school system that adopted several “equity based” grading changes, such as removing behavior factors from the academic portion of grades and scaling down the emphasis of interim classroom work.

These debates about grading are not new. But they’ve been the target of renewed attention—and a fair degree of controversy—as schools navigate concerns about grade inflation and academic recovery.

Districts face strong headwinds, including competing views among researchers, policymakers, and pundits about the most effective policies. Parents, teachers, and students have differing understandings about what grades mean. And, for better or worse, new grading policies can affect educators’ workloads, classroom routines, and teaching methods.

Pulling apart the purpose—and mechanics—of grading

A tricky thing about grades is that they serve so many purposes, and can be shaped by so many factors. In seeking to rethink grading, districts must keep broad questions in mind: What are grades meant to communicate?

Are they inflated by overly lenient approaches? Do some students receive lower grades because of educator biases and circumstances out of students’ control, like a lack of home internet access, that make it difficult to meet homework deadlines? Are grades meant to reflect a cumulative measure of students’ work, or their current grasp of academic concepts?

It’s a process that can uncover a lot of inertia and unintended consequences, grading experts said.

“Grades should accurately reflect a student’s current understanding of the course content, free from biases,” said Joe Feldman, a former teacher, principal, and educational consultant whose book, Grading for Equity, has influenced districts around the country, including Clark County.

In theory, students with a similar level of content understanding should have similar grades, even if it took one student longer to demonstrate that understanding, he said.

But grades that incorporate points for extra credit, class participation, turning in homework on time, or even showing up to class with needed supplies, distort that reflection, Feldman contends. Students who’ve mastered less content may have higher grades if they are able to comply with those behavioral expectations. And students who take longer to grasp course content at the beginning of the year may see their grades dragged down by lower scores on early assignments, even if they eventually demonstrate a full understanding of all academic concepts.

“Most teachers get very little training in how to grade, so they are forced to replicate how they were graded,” Feldman said. “In doing so, they replicate some of the same unintended consequences.”

Debating shifts in grading policies

Equitable grading practices help refocus grades on what students know and prevent schools from collapsing academic and nonacademic factors together in ways that make final marks less reliable, he said. Then, teachers can focus on building students’ intrinsic motivation by emphasizing how healthy academic habits, like studying or participating in class, help them learn.

The idea of equitable grading has produced a voluble set of critics—and not merely among policy wonks. Some teachers and school board members in districts that have considered or adopted changes contend that they have fueled a lack of motivation among students, leaving them unprepared for the realities of college and work, where deadlines come with real consequences.

Prohibiting penalties for late work and non-zero grading policies “tend to reduce expectations and accountability for students, hamstring teachers’ ability to manage their classrooms and motivate students, and confuse parents and other stakeholders who do not understand what grades have come to signify,” researchers Meredith Coffey and Adam Tyner of the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute wrote in a Feb. 28 brief.

“All of this makes addressing recent learning loss even harder,” they concluded.

Many stakeholders see the incorporation of behavior-related factors in grades as a “desirable feature of grading, not a bug,” they wrote.

The Fordham authors, though, see merit in some popular pillars of equitable grading, like eliminating extra credit assignments and using rigorous grading rubrics to provide clear expectations for students and promote consistency across classrooms and schools.

Supporters of simplifying grading scales and other equity-focused practices counter concerns about excessive leniency by arguing thta the new policies can force students to work harder.

“If you throw in things [into grades] like turning it in on time, bringing Kleenex to class, sharpening your pencils in math, students will be motivated—but they will be motivated to get points, not necessarily to learn more,” said Susan Brookhart, an education professor emerita at Duquesne University who has followed grading debates for decades. “And besides that, it’s all external motivation,” rather than an internal desire to learn more and, ultimately, earn a higher grade.

Changing grading systems to encourage consistency

Districts that have adjusted grading policies in recent years include large school systems like Fairfax County, Va., Los Angeles, and San Diego.

Clark County leaders adopted a new grading policy in 2021 that called for reporting “student behavior” separately from class grades, and weighting grades to emphasize students’ mastery of key academic concepts outlined in consistent rubrics.

The 300,000-student district, the fifth largest in the country, started its grade-reform work at the urging of some “forerunner principals” who had tweaked policies in their own schools, said Meyer, the director of the district’s assessment department.

Under the policy, students who don’t turn in work on time or fail an assignment cooperate with teachers to develop a “reassessment plan” that gives them another chance to demonstrate learning.

If students still don’t meet those goals, assignments are marked with an “M” in the gradebook, which is calculated as 50 percent at the elementary level and as 0 percent for secondary students.

Schools use strategies like after-school study hall periods and scheduled reassessment time to help students learn content they may have missed the first time. The strategy stops students from accepting an “F,” and gradually growing less motivated as they fall further behind, Clark County officials said.

The district also works with principals and educators to share best practices.

But the changes haven’t come without challenges. A leader of the Clark County Education Association, the district’s teachers’ union, argued in August 2023 that the policy “artificially inflates” student progress.

Meanwhile, a parent told local news station KTNV that her children’s grades had gone down after the changes because, while they typically did well on homework, they struggled with tests.

A month before she made those statements, the district revised its policy in response to criticism from teachers. Under the changes, schools must set a deadline of five days for students to complete missed assignments, and secondary school students can receive a grade as low as zero on assignments, but they must receive a minimum grade of 50 on quarterly grades.

Changes in grade distribution

Grade distribution patterns change after districts adopt new grading practices, Feldman said. In a 2018 analysis of 24 high school teachers in a suburban district, his consulting organization found that the share of students who received D’s or F’s on end-of-year grades dropped from 11 percent to 9 percent after the equitable grading policy changes took effect.

Among white students, the percentage earning D’s and F’s remained at 9 percent before and after the change. Among students of color, 19 percent earned D’s and F’s before the change, and 12 percent earned those low grades after. Conversely, rates of A’s stayed relatively stable for white students, but they increased for students of color following the policy revision.

But critics like the researchers at the Fordham Institute say new grading policies lead to further distortion, rather than greater accuracy.

“When grading is stricter [incorporating factors like late penalties], it can help educators identify students who need the most support, academic or otherwise,” they wrote in their recent paper. “That is, regardless of whether students are struggling with content or with timely work submission, lower grades flag for teachers and administrators the students most in need of intervention.”

Researchers have also tied some concerns about pandemic-era grade inflation to ad hoc policies districts adopted to cope with a rocky shift to remote learning. In some cases, districts quickly adopted non-zero policies, rather than comprehensive changes to their grading structures, to address student factors, like family disruptions, that could hinder learning.

A November 2023 analysis of state test scores and grades earned by Washington state students between 2011 to 2022 found that A’s spiked ‘in the spring of 2020, when schools closed. And A’s and B’s correlated with scores in a lower percentile on state tests, meaning they were less predictive of strong performance on the independent assessments, concluded the study, which was published by Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the American Institutes for Research.

The sudden jumps in grades followed guidance from the Washington education department in April 2020 that instructed districts not to assign grades of “fail” and “no credit” to students in high school credit-bearing classes, said the CALDER report by Director Dan Goldhaber and Maia Goodman Young, a research assistant at the University of Washington.

Feldman said such shifts show the dangers of adopting piecemeal changes without examining broader approaches to student assessment. Policies like Washington’s eliminated factors that could depress students’ grades, but didn’t address factors that can artificially inflate them, leading to an imbalance, he said.

Brookhart, the Duquesne education professor,said administrators who want to update grading policies must be willing to collaborate with educators, seek feedback, and remain committed to new approaches long enough to see them change teaching and learning, even if they face some resistance along with way. That can mean years of planning before any changes are made.

“If the central office just decides ‘this shall be so’ and makes the change without talking with teachers, parents, and students, it often comes across as just one more decree from the central office,” Brookhart said. “Teachers think, ‘just wait a while and it’ll pass,’ and often it does.”

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