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Traditional Grading May Not Be as Straightforward as It Seems (Opinion)

Joe Feldman is a former high school teacher, principal, and district administrator; author of Grading for Equity; and the CEO of Crescendo Education Group, which works with schools and systems on grading practices. Joe had reached out after I’d written about my concerns with “equitable grading.” I’ve known Joe since I TA’d him in ed. school 30 years ago, and we wound up having a fruitful exchange. It felt topical, timely, and substantive, so I thought we’d keep it going. See what you think.


Rick: Joe, we had a fascinating conversation a few weeks ago about “equitable grading.” As I noted, I’m pretty skeptical, given that I’ve encountered it as an attack on rigor and traditional academic norms. But you made a pretty compelling case that it’s not that at all; that it’s supposed to be about raising expectations in a responsible way. Today, I’d like to build on that earlier exchange. First off, we didn’t really get a chance to address your observation that grading is generally “more complex than people first realize.” What exactly do you have in mind and what’s it mean, practically, for teachers and students?

Joe: I’m glad we’re continuing this important dialogue, Rick. Most people—particularly those not in the classroom—can assume that a grade is simply the final calculation of points accumulated across weighted categories. But grading is so much more than that. First of all, grading isn’t just happening at the end of learning. Grading is woven into every decision made by a teacher during learning. With every activity a teacher assigns, they have to decide whether to grade it or not and, if so, which category, how many points, how to score it if it’s late or incomplete, whether the work can be resubmitted, etc. But that’s not all. Over the last 10 years of working with K–16 teachers, my organization has seen how a teacher’s grade is often an extension of that teacher’s beliefs, assumptions, and even identity: What do they believe is their role in the learning process? What motivates children? What are their students capable of? What creates a positive learning culture? What best prepares students for success? All these mental models are expressed in a teacher’s grading practices.

The unfortunate reality is that grading is not included in most teacher-preparation programs. Denied access to the research on grading, most teachers have no choice but to replicate how they were graded when they were students, adhere to their district’s or department’s grading policies, construct their own grading system, or, more likely, some combination of the three. Unaware of how our century-old grading practices contradict sound mathematical practices, adolescent-development research, and effective motivation strategies, so many well-intentioned and dedicated teachers frequently don’t realize that, by relying on inherited grading practices, they are undermining their own work and perpetuating achievement and opportunity disparities—even when they use the most engaging curriculum and differentiated instruction.

Rick: Joe, let me pause you for one moment and ask you to clarify what you mean when you say “grading practices contradict sound mathematical practices, adolescent-development research, and effective motivation strategies.” These are some pretty strong claims. I don’t mean to push you for a treatise, but could you explain or offer an example of what you have in mind?

Joe: Let’s say a teacher assesses students with a quiz four times during a unit. For the student who doesn’t learn the content quickly or struggles, they might get an F on the first quiz, improve to a C or B on the next two quizzes, and then ultimately master the content and receive an A on the final assessment. Our inherited grading practices have us average that performance over time, which gives the student a C-plus. Our common sense tells us that the C-plus isn’t an accurate description of the student’s proficiency, which we also know from applying sound mathematical practices. First, we should steer clear of averaging when we have an outlier in our data: that early F. Second, incorporating data from earlier in the learning process yields an outdated and false description of that student’s current level of understanding.

Additionally, many teachers assume that low grades motivate a student to work harder, yet almost all the evidence points in the opposite direction: Low grades demotivate students. When our student in this example receives that first F, not only does this F tell them that they can’t do something—which they probably knew when they took the quiz—but because the teacher averages their performance over time, the student knows they will carry around this F like an anchor throughout the rest of the unit. Adolescent brains aren’t yet fully able to consider long-term perspective and planning, so consigning them to a low grade with no clear opportunity for redemption is a surefire way to demotivate them. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t assign low grades when they reflect a student’s weak understanding. The solution to the mathematical weakness and demotivational impact of this traditional grading practice is to make grades reflect students’ more current, valid performance. In our example, we want to report the student’s ultimate understanding, after they make mistakes and learn from them, which means this student has an A. In this way, early failures won’t condemn a student to low grades regardless of their learning, and the grade will be more accurate.

Rick: All right, that’s a lot of food for thought. I’m going to have to think about that, but it’s definitely clarifying. I interrupted you before, so feel free to pick up where you left off.

Joe: Sure. Even though grading is a crucial—yet overlooked—part of teacher preparation, we could solve this if we genuinely explored grading within the professional culture of schools, but we don’t. Most schools intentionally avoid the topic of grading. Why? When grading is an expression of a teacher’s beliefs and self-concept, discussions about grading can be interpreted—and actually have been experienced by teachers—as threats to their professional autonomy. Conversations are avoided not just between administrators and teachers but among teachers themselves: No one wants to infringe on anyone else’s autonomy. Grading becomes what Jeffrey Erickson calls “the third rail” in education: a source of immense instructional power that no one dares touch. Each teacher’s grading becomes siloed, leading to wide variability—one 10th grade English teacher grades very differently from the 10th grade English teacher next door, multiplied across a school and district—which means that a student’s grade can be more reflective of their teacher’s grading practices than the student’s proficiency in the course.

It can all feel like a Gordian knot, but we can provide teachers with the research, language, and support to collaboratively interrogate and improve this underexamined, yet crucial, element of their practice. Our experience is that teachers are grateful and hungry for the opportunity.

Rick: OK, if we stipulate that someone is with you so far, what’s involved in equipping teachers or school leaders to grade responsibly and rigorously? Obviously, mastering all that stuff you listed would be a daunting ask. So, how do you do ensure that this is done in the manner you intend?

Joe: I don’t know if there’s a yellow brick road to better grading, but I’ll share how my organization, with over 10 years of experience, approaches it. We’ve found that in order for teachers to effectively implement improved, more equitable grading, they need to learn about the history of traditional grading and that the last several decades of research support a much different approach. Indeed, traditional grading is based on tenets and beliefs during the Industrial Revolution that have been completely debunked. Equitable grading, on the other hand, is aligned with our contemporary understanding of effective and responsive teaching and learning. Once teachers understand the pedagogical value, and perhaps the ethical responsibility, of improving our inherited grading, they are open to the theory and rationale underlying more equitable grading practices and its pillars: accuracy, bias-resistance, and motivation. Only after this foundational knowledge do they learn about the practices themselves. Too often, we skip past this grounding and jump straight to the “how” of equitable grading practices, a shortcut that treats grading as a set of “plug and play” tactics. That’s when grading initiatives fizzle, collapse, or get stamped out due to resentment or misunderstandings and misapplications. But with a solid foundation and ongoing support, over not just months but years, teachers find success with the practices, and so do their students and families.

Rick: As I think you know, one of my peeves is how often well-meaning ideas play out quite differently in practice than they do in theory. And the way this works is that we usually drop the hard, tricky parts while keeping the crowd-pleasing stuff. In the case of mastery-based grading, I’ve worried this means getting rid of traditional course requirements before schools have reliable ways in place to gauge mastery. When it comes to equitable grading, I’m concerned that schools will default to ditching homework, offering lots and lots of consequence-free retests, and easing up their grading—not because that’s necessarily what you’re encouraging but because that’s an easy-to-like, easy-to-understand version of this. Two questions: Is that a fair concern? And how do you help guard against that tendency?

Joe: We both share that concern. As one of the first to coin the term “equitable grading,” I often see people—both supporters and skeptics—misrepresent and distort the ideas and practices. You have highlighted some of the misinterpretations—that late work has no consequence, that homework is entirely optional or should be abolished, that there should be an unlimited number of retakes, or that there should be an artificially upward pressure on grades and a concomitant push downward on expectations. These misapplications fundamentally misunderstand the meaning of equity generally and the meaning of equitable grading specifically. I’ve also seen teachers take a fragment of an equitable grading practice and graft it onto a traditional grading approach to create a Frankenstein grading system—for example, they allow retakes but only make them available to students who score below 79 percent and limit a retake score to a maximum of 80 percent, ostensibly to be fair to students who scored well on their first try and to extrinsically motivate students to learn faster. This approach violates all three pillars of equitable grading—motivation, accuracy, and bias-resistance—and makes little pedagogical sense: When we prohibit a student who scored 82 percent from subsequent learning because they did too well, we limit their motivation. When we cap a grade, we give an inaccurate description of a student’s understanding. And when we put a ceiling on a grade, our grading is biased against students who have less support and take longer to learn.

There’s no fail-safe way to control other people’s interpretations of this work. What we can do is keep talking about grading, encourage questions and curiosity about how to improve it, and correct the record when we can. Every conversation helps!

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