Harvard EdCast: Grading for Equity
When Joe Feldman, Ed.M.’93, author of Grading for Equity , looked closer at grading practices in schools across the country, he realized many practices are outdated, inconsistent, and inequitable. Today he helps educators develop strategies that tackle inconsistent grading practices. In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Feldman discussed how shifting grading practices can change the landscape of schools and potentially the future for students. Jill Anderson: I’m Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. Joe Feldman believes how teachers grade students today is often outdated, inconsistent and inequitable. He’s a former educator who’s been examining grading practices, and believes there’s better ways to do it. He’s been working with schools to develop strategies that reimagine how we grade students. Some of these strategies go beyond common practices like using extra credit, to really assessing how well a student is mastering the content. When I spoke with Joe, I asked him why grading hasn’t changed very much?
Joe Feldman: Most teachers have never really had an opportunity to think very critically about grading. It’s not part of our credentialing work, it’s not part of our professional development often. Even when we’re given some new curriculum or new instructional strategies, grading is really pushed outside the conversation. Most people think it exists almost outside teaching, and that it’s just this sort of calculation, this sort of bean counting, but it’s actually interwoven into every pedagogical decision that teachers make, because whenever they make a choice about an activity, or some work, or some assessment, they have to decide whether or not to grade it. And if so, with what weight? With what consequences? All kinds of things like that.
We really are using an inherited grading structures and practices that date back to the industrial revolution, when we had different ideas about what schools were for, and what learning should look like, and what we believed about kids, and which kids we believe those things, and which kids we sort of dismissed.
Because there hasn’t been a lot of good research and attention to grading, we’ve just been replicating how we were taught. You know, we’d say, well, it seems like a good idea to drop the lowest grade if kids have done all their homework. That seems like a reasonable thing to do. And we just are all kind of winging it, or doing it based on what our mentor teacher did, or our department may have shared an idea, but we just haven’t had the opportunity to critically examine it. I hope that the work that I’m doing gives teachers and schools a license, and vocabulary, and a space to start to really interrogate the grading practices that we use.
Jill Anderson: I mean, I was struck by how inconsistent grading can be across the same school. Why do you think that inconsistency is so problematic?
Joe Feldman: If you look at it from the viewpoint of the student, so in a typical day in middle school or high school, students are seeing five, six, even more teachers each day. Every teacher is usually doing their own approaches to grading, and many of them become idiosyncratic. Although every teacher has deep beliefs that they’re trying to imbue in their grading, and send certain messages and values to students, and trying to build a certain kind of learning community, every teacher is doing it differently. From the student, it adds to my cognitive load. I not only have to understand the content and try and perform at high levels of the content, but now I also have to navigate a grading structure that may not be totally transparent, and may be different for every teacher, and particularly for students who are historically underserved and have less education background, and fewer resources and sort of understanding of how to navigate those really foreign systems to a lot of our students, it places those additional burdens on them, which we shouldn’t do.
Jill Anderson: Talk to me a little bit about this idea of inequity and grading.
Joe Feldman: When I first started doing this work, I had been a teacher for years, and a principal of a couple of different high schools, and worked as a district administrator in New York city, and in Northern California as a director of curriculum and instruction, supervised principals and coach teachers. Through all of that work, grading had always nagged at me because there was no way to address these inconsistencies. I began interviewing more teachers and principals, and everyone was frustrated with grading. As I did more research, I found that the traditional practices that we use actually perpetuate disparities that have been going on for years by race, income, education, background, language. The frustrating part I think, is that so many of us go into education to try and disrupt and counteract these cycles of disparities over generations, and do great work and thinking about culturally responsive pedagogy and diverse curriculum, and really trying to listen to our students, and yet we are using practices that undermine those things and actually work against all of the great equity work that we’ve been doing.
Jill Anderson: Can you tell me some of the strategies that you propose for changing grading in schools?
Joe Feldman: I’ll start with talking about a common practice that perpetuates inequities and what to do instead. One example is the traditional idea that we average a student’s performance over time. And actually grade book software does this by default. If you imagine students do some homework, and then they do a quiz or two, and then there’s some summit of assessment or test at the end of some unit.
The way that we traditionally grade those things is that we assign point values for all those things, and students score a certain number of them out of a certain number of possible. Then we add up all those numbers and divide the number earned by the number possible. What that is doing is it’s averaging all of the performances together into a single grade.
The problem with that, is that for the student who does well from the very beginning and gets A’s on everything, their performance is fine, their average is an A, but for the student who struggles at the beginning and gets very low grades, D’s and C’s and even F’s as they are in the process of learning, and even on early quizzes when they demonstrate mastery on the test and let’s say they get an A on the test, because they have those earlier grades that ostensibly were for assignments and assessments that were on the path to learning, that they were supposed to learn from, and that they weren’t even supposed to have learned everything yet, when we include those early scores, it pulls down the final grades, so it actually misrepresents the level of mastery that a student has ultimately demonstrated.
The reason why that’s so inequitable, is that for the student who, before coming to class, attended summer workshops or had parents who gave them a much richer educational environment because they had the time, and the education, and the money, or the students who had a great teacher the year before, they’re going to come in at the beginning of that unit and do much better, and the student who hasn’t had those resources and privileges is going to start lower. When you average a student’s performance over time, you are actually perpetuating those disparities that occurred before that student came into your class. The alternative then, is that you wouldn’t include earlier performances. You would only include in the grade how a student did at the end of their learning, not to include the mistakes they made in the process.
Jill Anderson: Do you see that as the biggest change a school or teachers could make in the process of grading?
Joe Feldman: It’s only one of, like a dozen. That’s just one example, and that really is just about how you calculate the grade. What’s hard about that for teachers to get their head around, is that that’s all they’ve ever known is, I put the numbers into my software, and the software does the calculation, and then poof, out comes a number. What I try and get teachers to recognize and own, is that if they allow the software to do that, that is an affirmative decision that they’re making, that averaging a student’s performance is the most accurate and equitable way to describe that student, and it’s not. Just helping them recognize that they have a choice in how grades are calculated, is a huge step toward really empowering teachers and giving them a greater sense of ownership and responsibility over how they grade. But there are many other practices.
Jill Anderson: Right. Some of the things I was reading about, doing away with extra credit, making homework not something that counts toward the final grade, and really reevaluating how teachers look at class participation, all these sort of extras that usually play into a student’s grade. Can you talk a little bit more about some of those items, because that’s big, to do away with some of that stuff, or look at it completely differently?
Joe Feldman: Yeah, and I think what you sense, is that this can be very disorienting to teachers and cause a lot of disequilibrium, because it is helping them see that the practices that they believed were right may actually be hurting students and giving inaccurate information. This is often very difficult and exciting work for teachers.
One category is to not include a student’s behavior in their grade. In many classrooms, teachers use grades as a classroom management strategy, and as a way to incentivize students to do behaviors that the teachers believe will support learning. An example is, in middle school we want to teach students that they need to bring their materials every day. What we will do is we will give them five points, up to five points each day if they bring their notebook, their pen, their calculator, et cetera. Teachers do this, because they believe that those kinds of skills are really important for students to be academically successful. The teachers are absolutely right that those skills are critical.
The problem is that when you include student behaviors in the grade, you start to misrepresent and warp the accuracy. An example is a student every day brings their notebook and pen and they get five points every day, but they do poorly on the quiz or the test. What happens is, is even though they may have gotten a C or a D on the test, because they brought the materials every day, or because they’ve raised their hand and asked a question every day, or because they are respectful, or turn things in on time, they’re getting all these points that are then lifting that C test grade to a B or even an A minus.
The big problem with that, well, there are several, one of which is that you’re miscommunicating to the student where they are. You’re telling the student that they’re at a B level in your content, and they’re actually at a C. So they don’t think there’s a problem, the counselors don’t think there’s a problem, the parents don’t think it’s a problem, and the student goes to the next grade level and gets crushed by the content, because they have no idea that they weren’t prepared for the rigor of that class because they kept getting the message that they were getting B’s.
A second big problem with including behavior in the grade for things like participation, is that often the way that teachers interpret student behaviors are through a culturally specific lens. Like whose norms are the teachers applying when they are grading students on their participation? We have to recognize that students learn in a variety of ways, many of which are not […]