We love games. Games are fun. Games are engaging. But, what constitutes a game? There is a definable set of rules. There is, more often than not, a clear winner and loser. Frequently, success is predicated on skills, talents, and often, luck. Under these circumstances, we know that if we put ourselves at a competitive advantage within that set of rules, we can increase our chances of success. However, what happens when the rules are arbitrarily applied and manipulated? Or when the participants engage in unscrupulous actions (sometimes we refer to this as cheating)? What happens when the “competitors” do not have access to the same, even necessary resources, to perform at their maximum potential? These same conditions can describe schools and are foundational bases for inequity within our educational systems.
School is a game. Grades and grading are a vital part of the “school game.” Rather than fostering academic achievement, we encourage academic gamification. We’ve all looked at required courses and identified the “easier” teacher to sign up for. We’ve seen students transferred from one class to another, and though both teach the same subject matter, the student’s grade changes drastically from teacher to teacher. The bigger question to ask ourselves is: Does a letter grade truly represent the totality of our learning? Are we accounting for our own implicit biases, achievement measures, or the unique assets learners bring into our learning environments?
Data That Matters
If the purpose of grading is to assess learning and encourage further engagement with the content, we must remove subjective and arbitrary measures from the evaluation. One of the most popular talking points around our current grading system is that it’s preparing students for college and/or the real world. Educators have long adhered to practices such as docking late work, grading class participation and attendance, curving test scores, and offering extra credit due to the assumption that we are honing skills deemed necessary for success in the future. A student’s hypothetical future in college (even though approximately 30% of high school students do not attend college) or the workforce, therefore, takes precedence over the immediate learning we believe we are assessing.
The curve-based system simply perpetuates systems of inequality and oppression. There is no clearly-defined measurement of learning, and the performance of other students solely determines the eventual score. This is both oppressive and inequitable because an instructor cannot guarantee that all students have access to the same resources and support, but nonetheless limits the success of some students, as scores are manipulated to fit within the teacher’s desired distribution of scores. If all students performed to a high established standard, not all students would be assigned a grade that corresponds to their performance because of the need to “curve” scores.
Additionally, it’s no secret that our antiquated A-F scale and corresponding percentage system make it far easier to fail than succeed; if we consider “success” as a C or above, 69% of the scale results in failure. (Also worthy of note: a C average is not likely to make a student competitive to most colleges and universities. Therefore the “success” percentage is likely limited to only a 10–15% range.) Not only is a small fraction of the scale considered successful, but it is nearly impossible to come back from a zero or a missing assignment. Is this representative of true “success” in the real world? Numbers and percentages are only relevant in the context in which they are used and applied. For example, if I were to say that I have a 30% success rate, many would say that is too low, but in the context of a baseball player, a batting average of at least .300 is considered excellent. According to our traditional grading scale, 43% may be regarded as a failure, but this is the 3-point shooting percentage of Steph Curry, the best 3-point shooter in the NBA.
Consider this scenario: what is of higher value, a student who improves from 88%-92% or a student who goes from 62%-82%? This improvement should be considered in context and account for the individual achievement, not how it fits into the percentage category. Our current grading system encourages competition among and between students. When you consider how grades determine class rank, access to certain classes, opportunities for extracurricular activities, and the subsequent stratification results, how much are they truly representative of knowledge or understanding? In the end, the grading system tends to reward those who know how to manipulate the rules, have access to critical resources, or simply understand the only pathway to success is to endure/survive our current culturally biased, antiquated curriculum and assessment system.
The reality is that every white-centered, dominant-culture-defined school and workspace is grooming students for rewards through compliance, conformity, and submission. When Nadia’s professor gave her a zero due to her belief that the work was submitted late, she assessed compliance, not learning. But compliance enforcement goes beyond late work, and can be far more insidious, as it manifests in disproportionate discipline practices for students, especially Black boys and girls. Think about the referrals written for “willful defiance” or for “giving the teacher attitude,” and how these overtly biased actions affect how that student interacts with course material as well as its correlation to student outcomes. By punishing non-compliance and rewarding acquiescence, we are implicitly showing value for racist norms that are not as arbitrary as they seem; they are the products of implicit biases, and even anti-Blackness, that have been practiced for hundreds of years. We must examine and challenge these assumptions and determine whether we want to use grading as a tool that perpetuates violence against students or if we’re going to empower those students to take ownership of their learning.
Bias and race can influence grading in both unforeseen and predictable ways when not checked. For example, a recent study was published in which a group of over 1,000 teachers were asked to grade an essay by a fictitious student. The essay was identical, except for the name of the author’s brother; in one set of essays the sibling’s name was identified as Connor, and in the other set, Dashawn. Teachers were as much as ~5 times more likely to assign higher marks to the essay in which the name Connor was used, despite all of the other content being precisely the same. We will share later how to mitigate and possibly eliminate teacher bias from grading.
Even when it comes to the so-called “model minority,” teachers’ implicit bias is just as pervasive.
Studies have shown that many K-12 educators believe that Asian American students need “less academic resources for their success — even though approximately one in three Asian Americans (especially those raised in households where English is not spoken) lack proficiency in writing, reading, and speaking skills” and furthermore, “only 17 percent of Pacific Islanders, 14 percent of Cambodian Americans, and 13 percent of Laotian and Hmong Americans have four- year college degrees, compared to 22 percent of black Americans and 15 percent of Hispanic Americans” (Oluo). Whether teachers’ implicit associations cause them to subconsciously grade more leniently or more harshly, we are holding students of all demographics (yes, even white students) to arbitrary standards of success. While equity-focused professional development is often geared toward pedagogy or incorporating procedures that focus solely on the individual, we are still working within the current inequitable grading system. We are still doing nothing more than coloring inside the lines; we are just using a different color.
The “game of school,” and more explicitly, grading, can be summed up into the following statement: “Grades serve little more than to stratify students, categorize and label, and provide a checkbox setup for college and university applications.”
We should be asking ourselves: what is the true purpose of grades and grading? While feedback and evaluatory measures are an essential part of learning, what is the message we send when we value a letter over the process? In our next post, we will examine equitable practices in assessing authentic learning.