(G)rading policies—which appear to be an objective, fair, and accurate method to describe a student’s academic performance—often increase achievement gaps by infusing grades with teachers’ implicit biases or by rewarding or punishing students based on their families’ resources.
Because grading is often not addressed in teacher preparation or in ongoing professional development, most teachers choose their own way to grade, guided by their best sense but uninformed by either research or best practices.
Grading practices are ALSO not addressed in Higher Ed professional development. OK. Let’s be honest, while most post-secondary institutions have campus units that offer many seminars, workshops and courses, the amount of teaching-related professional development completed by MOST higher ed faculty is ZERO.
(T)raditional grading practices result in grades that provide unclear and often misleading information to parents, students, and postsecondary institutions.
A bucket of information compressed into a thimble-sized container.
Traditional grading is subjective.
But then again, almost ALL grading is subjective. We might as well acknowledge that and make our grading practices as transparent as possible. Subjective grading is not necessarily a bad thing.
Current practices conflict with contemporary understandings of growth mindset and how to encourage students to learn through practice and experimentation. An F early in a student’s learning and an A at the end average out to a C, regardless of progress over time and final achievement. This mathematically unsound approach punishes students with early struggles, often those who enter the class with fewer resources and less prior academic success and have the most potential growth ahead of them.
That’s why my approach to Practical Gamification almost always allows for re-submission, and why the sum (total) of possible marks they can earn always adds up to MORE than 100%.
That way, they will always have an opportunity to recover from a ‘bad’ mark or a missed assignment.
Many teachers entered the profession to provide every student an opportunity to succeed, to minimize the achievement and opportunity gaps. Yet when we continue to use traditional grading practices, we inadvertently reproduce those gaps.
In partnering with urban, rural, and suburban public schools and districts, as well as elite private academies, we at the Equitable Grading Project—a research initiative of the equity-focused education consulting group I lead—have found that once teachers learn about the harms caused by our century-old grading practices, they are motivated to try alternative, more equitable grading practices.
What ultimately changed my thinking about traditional grading was asking myself the question:
What is the purpose of grading?
If I answer with the usual: “To provide evidence of mastery”,
AND, if I then look at what we usually do (high stakes tests, hard deadlines, single attempt assignments, compartmentalized grading, etc.)
it turns out that many of our time-honored traditions in grading actually have NOTHING to do with mastery of the course content.
In our review of academic research and observations of teachers’ implementation, we have identified key aspects of what we call equitable grading, which is accurate, bias-resistant, and motivational:
• Reflect growth and learning.
Teachers should use a more proportionately structured 0-4 scale instead of a 0-100 point scale that is mathematically oriented toward failure, stop assigning a zero for missing work, and weight recent performance and growth instead of averaging performance over time. By allowing students to retake tests and projects (with the chance to replace previous scores), teachers can reward learning, support a growth mindset, and not disadvantage students who enter classrooms with weaker academic backgrounds.
My Practical Gamification uses a 0-5 point scale for most items, and my students all know ahead of time what they can earn marks for.
I do not weight recent work more heavily (that seems like it could promote leaving things to the last minute, and send the wrong message about the value of early foundational work. I DO let my students re-submit work (till they get it right, if they want to), but with my strictly cumulative marking, there is no such thing as “replacing” a mark; there is only additional growth.
• Value knowledge, not environment or behavior.
Instead of grading subjectively interpreted behaviors such as a student’s “effort” or “participation,” teachers should focus grades on required content or standards. Grades should not be used to reward compliance or homework completion, both of which invite implicit and institutional biases.
• Lift the veil on how to succeed.
Standards-aligned rubrics, simplified grade calculations, and standards-based scales and gradebooks make teacher’s expectations explicit and facilitate students’ understanding, ownership, and power over their grades.
I don’t like rubrics. They work fine if you have large numbers. I can create a rubric for a 1st year programming problem because I’ve literally seen THOUSANDS of them. If you don’t have 1,000’s of example solutions made by all kinds of students, then you really have no idea what ‘exemplary’, ‘adequate’, or ‘needs improvement’ actually looks like. You are making it up.
• Build soft skills—without including them in the grade.
Teachers should employ a more expansive range of feedback strategies to incorporate peer and self-evaluation and build self-regulation instead of relying solely on grades as feedback.
Our analysis also found that equitable grading practices don’t just reduce D and F rates, they are also more accurate. When teachers use equitable grading practices, they assign final grades that are more strongly correlated with students’ standardized assessment scores on that content, and the effect is stronger for students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
Finally, we found that equitable grading improves the learning environment for teachers. In surveys and independent case studies, teachers and students reported that classrooms are less stressful, teacher-student relationships are stronger and more trusting, and students are more motivated to learn after these interventions.
When we talk about equity, grading is rarely mentioned. By overlooking it, we unwittingly perpetuate the very disparities we dedicate ourselves as educators to correct. It is incumbent upon educators at every level—teachers, principals, district administrators, school boards, and state policymakers—to improve grading policies to ensure that they reinforce, not work against, our commitment to equity.