Grading is Capitalist, Racist, and Exploitative
Part Four: Changes to Make
As classroom teachers, we have to assign grades. We spend endless hours grading and engage in countless discussions about grades, but once a student is out of our class, their grade will probably never again cross our mind. Students, however, carry their grades forever: academic Scarlet Letters that dictate their future. By the time students apply for college or a job, their grades weigh heavily on future opportunities.
GPA: Grading’s Performative Actions
Grade point average (GPA) is essentially the cumulative average of all grades, measured either by raw numbers or weighted averages for honors or AP classes. More often than not, a student’s GPA serves as the primary evaluatory measure of their academic performance and academic potential. It is used to determine class ranking, eligibility for extracurricular activities such as sports, and enrollment in honors and/or AP classes. GPA is one of the most critical factors colleges and universities look at for admission decisions, and it affects SAT/ACT score requirements for college admission. Ultimately, students are judged more on their GPA than what they actually learned in school. The pressure of achieving a “good” GPA creates a highly competitive learning environment and heightened focus on outcome (grade) rather than learning (process), and encourages academic dishonesty, but most importantly, is detrimental to student mental health.
Shifting Grading Practices
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, grading has become a hot topic of conversation, mainly because an unprecedented percentage of students have Ds and Fs. In some school districts in California, almost 40% of students had at least one failing grade (though this percentage is higher in other states). In response, one school district made the following modification to their grading scale:
They have slightly narrowed the F range and slightly widened the D range. But when we look at the standard scale, according to most college admissions, 70% of the scale still means failure. If a student earns below 70% in a class, does that always mean that they have not learned the material? Is it possible that a student “gets it,” but earns a D or an F? (Of course, we know the answer.)
Another suggestion in modern grading reform is the possibility of eliminating zeros in the grade book. However, the argument is always made that we are “rewarding students for doing nothing.” But is a score of 50% (still “failing”) considered a reward? When a student is assigned 50%, the real reward is the continued opportunity to show their learning, and to not be buried in a hole they cannot mathematically recover from. This “reward” sounds to us like something we should be encouraging in all our students, but too often, our response is indicative of what Cornelius Minor warns against: teaching our students within the beliefs of transactional gratitude and deservedness.
Eliminating the traditional grading scale is only where we start. There is much in regards to grading and assessment we need to challenge, especially the value we place on improvement. Improvement should always be considered as part of the academic performance of a student. A favorite example is the parachute packer: given the choice between Student A or B, which student would you want to pack your parachute?
In this example, Student A “has learned nothing in 5 weeks. . . 1 out of every 5 parachutes he packs still won’t open,” but they were assigned 80% proficiency in the course. Student B, on the other hand, who ended the course with a lower grade than their peer, “consistently packed every parachute accurately in the last two weeks of the course.” If we choose solely on their final grades, our parachute trip is likely to end in disaster.
During the pandemic, we have begun discussing a practical, equitable approach to grading, and school and district leaders recognize the need for more meaningful change. San Diego Unified School District (the second largest district in California, serving over 121,000 students) recently announced a shift to more equitable grading, which includes a 0–4 scale and “includes opportunities for reflection, revision, and reassessment.” These district leaders understand that without a grading system that allows us to place student learning into individual context, we have no choice but to reimagine what and how we grade.
What Equitable Grading Looks Like
One of the critical questions to ask ourselves is, “How can we make an inherently inequitable system more equitable?” While we believe that grading needs significant reform (including possible complete dismantling of the system), the ideas below can serve as a pathway toward a more equitable system:
- Eliminate “traditional” grading scale- with the current grading scale, the margin of “success” is no more than 15%. A four-point grading scale not only increases the opportunity for success, but when combined with the other areas examined here, ensures a legitimate opportunity for success. Averaging (when considered in the context of the parachute graphic) does not accurately represent growth in learning or achievement.
- Try standards-based grading- establishing a set core of definitive and definable standards is one of the more effective ways to eliminate teacher bias in grading. Having clearly articulated and unambiguous measures for each level of proficiency provides an opportunity to demonstrate knowledge and understanding while avoiding ambiguous scales. Eliminate criteria such as originality and creativity from all grading guidelines. It is not equitable to apply objective measures to subjective works.
- Assessment- consider the different types: assessment for learning, of learning, and as learning. In all three, improvement is seen as a positive and treated as such (this is why we’d choose Student B to pack our parachutes). Improvement > Achievement.
- Center feedback- ongoing feedback provides greater opportunities for better representations of learning. The importance of a timely, accurate, and responsive feedback cycle cannot be overstated.
- The 4 Rs- all student works should allow for reflection, revision(s), and resubmission/retake. Place value on the process, not just the final product.
- The 3 Ps- performance, progress, and process. This is where grading can be highly individualized and differentiated. Each student is gauged by their own performance, progress, and their process against previous works. It is vital to include students in each component of the 3 Ps.
What Antiracist Grading Looks Like
Even after implementing all the reforms above, we are still left with a system of teaching and learning (curriculum and assessment) that has produced racist outcomes for students of color for hundreds of years. Whether we consider modern school segregation, inequitable funding for schools in communities of color, or (even in affluent schools) a racist, traumatic curriculum, even the most equitable grading systems will still result in racist outcomes. This is because our schools, like most workplaces and organizations, uphold white supremacy culture in several ways, from the expectations we hold of students to how we perceive our own power as educators. Thus, when educators employ a mindset of critical thinking and perpetual learning, we can mitigate these racist outcomes. In considering your own classroom, identify areas where you and your students can engage in the following:
- Challenge the standards and canon- whose voices and texts are being amplified in our classrooms? Who is missing? Why are certain voices or texts considered “worthy” of learning, but others aren’t? Allow students to challenge and deeply understand the content they will be graded on.
- Reward critical thinking- rather than expecting memorization and regurgitation of material, engage students in critical discourse that encourages higher-level thinking and application of skills or material (DOK 3–4).
- Use the Anti-Bias Framework- The Learning for Justice Anti-Bias Framework asks students to consider what they are learning in the context of four anti-bias domains: identity, diversity, justice, and action. This framework allows students to make relevant connections with the material, “allows educators to engage a range of anti-bias, multicultural and social justice issues,” and allows students to understand collective trauma in context.
- Use Interactive Phase Theory- when teaching about the experiences of others, it is important to recognize in which phase of curriculum implementation our classrooms, schools, and districts are. A meaningful consideration of Interactive Phase Theory will result in a more complete and antiracist presentation of curriculum.
- Use multiple means of assessment- how might students show proficiency in “outside the box” ways? Do students have more than one opportunity to “show what they know”? Are you open to accepting methods that may be unfamiliar to you and your culture? How can students show what they know, but that you may not have asked?
- Encourage imagination in assessment- imagination and dreaming should be part of student learning and assessment, as “research shows that the ability to dream and imagine is an important factor in fostering hopefulness, and optimism,” which can counteract the mental health struggles we discussed in the GPA section, above. Create space for students to imagine ways assessment can take place with few limitations and lots of possibilities.
- Include your students- in grading, in decision-making, in building the curriculum, and in assessment. Empower students to take ownership of their learning and ask them to examine and reflect on their own proficiency (note that we are using “proficiency,” not “mastery”). When students are involved in decisions, we can mitigate trauma and support student well-being, a function of the control and power young people have in their schools and communities.
- Start with yourself- meaningful grading reform cannot happen without your commitment to antiracism: read research (start with our links and references!), become familiar with systemic data, understand the cultural experiences of your students, acknowledge and let go of your own privilege and power, and surround yourself with peers who will keep you accountable for antiracism work.
Let’s Do This.
Every antiracist educator must work toward equitable grading reform. In 2020, EducationWeek found that 81% of teachers “identify themselves as anti-racist/abolitionist educators,” so let’s start here. To begin combating the myriad inequities involved in grading, consider sharing this blog series (parts one, two, three, and four) with your colleagues, site administrators, and district leadership. Let’s embrace the equitable shifts we are seeing in our post-pandemic schools, and take this opportunity to strive for a more authentic system of teaching, learning, assessment, and grading.