In this multi-part series, Ken and Nadia will present a detailed examination, analysis, and interrogation on the enduring norm we call grading. We will examine the embedded purpose of grading, policies that are inequitable by design, and potential solutions that will not only provide a pathway towards reform but also be aligned with a more just and equitable system.
Though we have reworked policies and practices in the spirit of educational equity, grading remains a longstanding tradition that hasn’t changed much since before we were students ourselves. Using an antiquated percentage system (that makes it far easier to fail than succeed), educators continue to encourage competition among students, reinforce stratification by design, and reward compliance and proficiency in a colonized and racist system of curriculum and assessment.
While we like to believe that our grading system assigns a letter that represents the totality of student learning, the reality is that grades are really nothing more than an educational stratification system. For example, grades are often used as one of the primary determining factors for opportunities in schools such as field trips, extracurricular activities, and even enrollment in advanced classes. When we consider class rankings, college applications, graduate school programs, grade point average, and the actions many will take all in the name of a letter, it is clear that this is an area of education that deserves much more attention in order to disrupt unjust educational systems. In fact, any discussion about equity, design, social and emotional learning, or any other program/pedagogy, that does not include grading in the conversation, is irresponsible and harmful to many students.
When I think about my undergraduate experience, there is one interaction that’s still burned into my mind. My first quarter at UCSD, a lower division literature class that was required for my major: the professor was a Harvard-educated woman who wrote a book and then assigned it as the textbook for the class ($100, required purchase). She made it clear in her syllabus that late work was not to be accepted. In the first few weeks of the quarter, I got sick- the most ill I have ever been in my life; I didn’t leave my bed for days, but I still made sure to get my essay written, revised, and polished to meet my perfectionist expectations. I sent her an email, attached the essay, and asked her if she would prefer for me to ask my roommate to print and deliver the essay in my absence. I did not receive a response to my email. When I returned the following week and asked if she saw my email, I was told that per the syllabus, she did not accept late work.
I pleaded with her — amid my illness I still made sure to send the essay before class so it wasn’t late. She reluctantly agreed to take a look at my work.
8 weeks later, after I spent two hours completing my final for the course, I walked up to submit my work and say thank you for a great quarter. When I did, she handed back my first essay, the one that she so graciously agreed to read. On top of the paper was a big red zero. “Late.” I froze. Did she even read the content of the paper? There was no feedback on how to improve, no acknowledgment that I had read or understood the course content, had submitted work on par with the rest of the writing I submitted that quarter — all of which had earned As. As I left that classroom, burning with the indignity of being embarrassed and my work being discarded as worthless, I kept thinking that if she had only read my work, she would understand that I did care about and understand the material. When grades were posted online, I learned that I was assigned a C. The only C I ever earned in college. My GPA suffered, my chances of being accepted to graduate school were diminished, and my willingness to improve my writing was forever tainted, only for her to “teach me a lesson.” This lesson is one that has never applied to any academic or professional context since.
This reminds me of a graduate school class I had in which all of the following were factored into your final grade (note: these factors are not limited to Graduate School)-
- Class participation
- Keeping up with the readings
- Performance on projects
- Mid-term and Final exam scores
What became very clear to me early in the semester was “participation” would be limited to what the instructor deemed compliant and conforming to the culture of the environment she wanted. During one of the class projects using a platform called Second Life, the readings and subsequent class discussions were around how it would revolutionize and change education. As part of my “participation,” I began to question these assertions. My contention was the platform had too many barriers to entry and thus was inequitable and would not revolutionize education. I cited articles written at the time about the digital divide, which I commonly refer to as digital poverty, and the need for robust equipment as well as a strong high bandwidth connection. My contributions were not met with healthy academic discourse but instead were met with resistance, gaslighting, and ultimately a challenge to the proverbial power dynamic in class environments. As a result, despite me completing, on time, all the other assignments with my assigned group my final grade was one full letter grade below that of my classmates. What I have since come to the realization of is that any and all non-academic factors can simply reward those who are compliant and conforming within the current system. The grades can be used as both an arbitrary and punitive measure as a result of the power dynamic. Class participation is only valued based upon how the teacher defines it which means it is subject to teacher bias and even cultural differences. This reminded me, sadly, of most of my high school classes as well. There were always the academic factors and then added to that were the citizenship factors. Students who question the status quo, question the validity of certain sources, question the purpose of many of our norms often get met with resistance rather than praised for their divergent thinking also commonly referred to as Critical Thinking.
So, Now What?
Ultimately, if our primary purpose of grading is to assess student learning, educators must consider an antiracist approach to grading, in which we destroy our previously normalized system and make way for an empowering learning experience for students. In the coming posts, we will explore the purpose of grading, examine the inequities in our current grading system, shed light on relevant research, and provide strategies to achieve a more just and equitable system of learning and assessment.