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The Trouble With ‘Equitable Grading’ (Opinion)

I’ve been having a series of conversations with Joe Feldman, the author of Grading for Equity, about efforts to promote equitable grading. In a recent conversation, Joe and I discussed a recent report by Meredith Coffey and Adam Tyner of the Fordham Institute, in which they offered a scathing take on the evidence used to justify equitable grading. Joe was fairly critical of their conclusions, which prompted Coffey and Tyner to pen a letter. I think it’s a serious, hard-hitting contribution to this timely debate and thought it worth sharing with you. Coffey is a senior research associate at Fordham with a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, while Tyner is Fordham’s national research director with a Ph.D. from the University of California, San Diego. Here’s what they had to say.

—Rick

Dear Rick,

We’re glad that you and Joe Feldman took the time to discuss our recent analysis of “equity grading” reforms. Like Feldman, we value educational equity, so we’re also glad he noticed that we agree with him on some equity-oriented grading reforms, like eliminating most extra credit and using rubrics to score assignments. Far from being “ironic,” as he called it, our agreement on those points is entirely consistent with our recommendation to “take the best parts from both traditional and equity-oriented grading approaches.”

Still, our policy brief urges readers to think again about other grading reforms that could undermine students’ motivation and learning. Though our brief isn’t specifically about Feldman’s work, we’ve closely followed your series with him, and over the course of your conversations, we’ve been left scratching our heads at a number of claims that Feldman made to you.

For example, Feldman told you that “abolishing penalties for late work” is not part of his program. Yet on Page 111 of his book, he lists “penalizing for lateness (tardiness or submitting work past the deadline)” as a biased practice. Then, on Page 115, he writes, “Reducing grades for late work both creates inaccuracy and violates our bias-resistant Driving Principle.” He specifies no alternative penalties, other than on Pages 213–14, where he mentions that “students may need formal reflections” on lateness—which he may believe is sufficient to address these problems.

Feldman also told you that prohibiting penalties for cheating and plagiarism is not part of his program. But “punishing cheating in the grade” is listed as another inequitable practice in his book, again on Page 111. In fairness, he does suggest some mild nongrade penalties, but they are poorly defined, such as “withdrawing some privilege or responsibility,” and he does not address how to implement them equitably. The bottom line is that his system prohibits grade penalties for cheating without putting any real deterrent in their place.

Additionally, Feldman said in your first exchange that the idea of “endless retakes” was “hyperbolic shorthand.” Yet on Page 175 of his book, he says: “If a student’s mastery of the content is important for success on future content, then you might want to give retakes until students have demonstrated necessary understanding.” Astonishingly, he proclaims that “Most schools and districts allow grade changes after a semester is over, so doesn’t that explicitly allow, perhaps invite, a student who wants to learn unmastered material to continue learning beyond the term and have her grade reflect that learning?” Suggesting that students continue revising their work after the semester ends sure sounds like “endless retakes” to us.

Feldman also mischaracterized our statement that “affluent students often have built-in mechanisms that hold them accountable, such as involved parents,” saying that we are talking about differences in parental expectations. But we did not mention expectations: We mentioned involvement. Moreover, he alleges that we make our claim “based on no evidence.” In fact, in our brief, the words “involved parents” link to this peer-reviewed study, which shows that more affluent parents are indeed more involved in school activities (see the study’s Table 4).

In general, we worry that Feldman just isn’t giving you the straight talk that you and your readers expect.

But perhaps the most troubling of Feldman’s claims is his repeated assertion that his program does not contribute to grade inflation. In fact, throughout Chapter 7 of his book, Feldman supports “minimum grading,” more commonly known as the “no-zero” policy. With this practice, teachers are prevented from assigning students any grade under 50 percent, often regardless of whether the student attempted the task. If a student who would otherwise have earned a zero, a 25, or a 45 suddenly gets a 50, that will necessarily increase (read: inflate) that student’s grade without changes in the quality of the student’s work. Feldman is free to argue that these policies are worth considering, but he cannot argue that they do not contribute to inflating grades, particularly for lower-performing students. Most people would recognize that removing penalties for late work and cheating is also likely to inflate grades.

The research base on which Feldman’s work rests is thin. As far as we can tell, his assertion that his program “decreases both grade inflation and grade deflation” relies on a single analysis that his company conducted internally for use in its marketing materials. The document shows that “teachers who use equitable grading practices assign grades that are closer to students’ scores on standardized tests.” But it is impossible to evaluate this claim based on the document he cites, which includes very little data, fails to define key terms (e.g., “assessment consistency”), and offers no information about the statistical models that produced the results. (Incredibly, considering the nature of this document, Feldman criticized us for not including it in our review of the research on grading practices.) Based on our reading of the document as researchers, it is entirely possible that grades and test scores are less aligned after their program. What we do know is that even Feldman’s company’s own analysis offers exactly zero evidence that students learned more after the implementation of his program.

Perhaps his most harmful recommendations are those that remove mechanisms to discourage student procrastination. Feldman argues against not only late penalties but also grades for homework and, in fact, grades for any practice assignments. Virtually every teacher knows that students learn more when they have some shorter-term, smaller-bite, lower-stakes assignments. But those assignments should not have zero stakes, or students will quickly realize that they are effectively optional. Enforcing deadlines and limiting retakes are critical pedagogical tools. All of this, in addition to no-zero policies and failing to dock points for late work, lower expectations and academic standards, despite Feldman’s confident assertions to the contrary. In the words of one public school teacher, equity grading “encouraged [students] to do the minimum.”

If Mr. Feldman cares as much about preserving high expectations and combating grade inflation as he claims, he ought to stop advocating policies that “encourage the minimum” and make it harder for schools to maintain high standards.

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