Most upper-grade teachers who implement traditional letter grading have experienced this scenario…
One type of student receives As, all year long.
One type of student receives As and Bs, all year long.
One type of student receives Cs, Ds, and Fs, all year long.
Students who know how to “do school” tend to do well throughout the school year. We don’t feel too worried about these students because they seem to have come to us prepared to succeed. However, students who struggle, face challenges the entire year, despite our best efforts to communicate with their families and provide extra support. These students seem to have deficits that can’t be overcome within one school year.
These patterns that teachers witness year after year have roots. This pandemic has laid bare the inequities that exist within our society and in our educational system.
Many teachers feel paralyzed, hopeless, and at a loss about what to do. Yet, despite the challenges we face, dedicated teachers are still making massive efforts to incorporate culturally responsive teaching practices into their classrooms. They are scouring the internet to find more diverse texts and taking the time to investigate the ways in which unconscious biases permeate their curricula.
Amidst this work many educators and stakeholders are realizing that the most pervasive inequities lie within our grading policies. Because of this, many teachers, myself included, are experimenting with their grading practices to ensure that all students have the resources they need to attain a “good grade” aka, As and Bs.
Educational equity is a school’s ability to provide students access to the resources they need to be successful despite their race, class, gender, sexuality, or disability.
Unfortunately, today in most schools success is defined by letter grades.
So, the question that needs to be answered for now — until schools are ready to finally do away with letter grades–is: what resources do students need to attain successful letter grades (As and Bs) and then graduate high school?
The rest of this article will outline five resources students need access to in order to attain As and Bs and therefore be successful in school.
Often resources are thought to be money or classroom materials, but I’d like you to consider that the term resources can be more expansive in educational settings. Resources can also include elements of how the classroom runs. Teachers set the pace and classroom culture. Teachers determine the criteria for success and decide on practices such as whether or not to offer retakes on assessments. All of these factors are resources students either have or don’t have depending on their teacher.
The five resources students need in order to make As and Bs and be considered successful in school are: accurate grades, a clear path to success, opportunities to retake assessments, fair grading scales, and support of soft skills.
1. Accurate grades
Joe Feldman’s book Grading for Equity is the most important and informative book on this topic. Feldman states that the sole purpose of grades needs to be an accurate reflection of student understanding and knowledge of the content area. But, often, “Traditional grading evaluates both a student’s content knowledge as well as their behaviors, and invites subjectivity and bias,” (Feldman, 40).
Grades should not include any aspect of a students’ work that could be subject to bias.
For example, taking points for late work, grading participation and grading homework are all practices that could invite bias into the grade book. But, how?
Bias is defined as favoring one group or person over another.
Taking points for late work, lack of participation or incomplete homework is favoring students who have the resources during class and at home necessary to do these things successfully.
- Grading participation favors extroverts. Yes, participation is important. See the soft skills section for more on this.
- Homework assignments favor students who have home lives conducive for this work.
- Doing work on time favors students who can be successfully productive within a very busy and often distracting school setting.
The easiest way to ensure grades accurately reflect a students’ content knowledge is to do away with any assignment or assessment that monitors behavior such as on time completion, homework completion or participation.
Many teachers believe that grading these things motivates students. However, the opposite is actually true. Students who receive a low grade are demotivated by being given low grades and the cycle I described at the beginning of this article continues.
It’s also important to note that on time submission, participation, and completion of homework are all considered “soft skills” that need to be discussed with students and assessed separately, outside of the grade book. More information about this is provided in the “soft skills” section.
2. A clear path to success
Each individual teacher has different values and these values are reflected in the systems he or she puts into place in their classroom. When students enter middle school the variances in teacher expectations can be confusing at best and mind boggling at worst.
One teacher may place a high value on homework completion, while another teacher may not even give homework, but does include prompt arrival to class into the grade book. Additionally, one letter grade averaging all assignments and assessments and including student behavior, is extremely vague when it comes to reflecting a students’ understanding and abilities within that subject area.
Students who want to improve are unsure how to go about it because that one letter represents a vast amount of criteria, including a teachers’ personal values and biases.
All of this means, we as teachers need to make sure we are transparent with our students about the path to success in our classrooms. But, how do we become more transparent?
First of all, only include assignments and assessments that reflect students’ understanding of the content, not their behavior. Secondly, Feldman urges teachers to use rubrics and standards-based grading to “lift the veil” for students. Thirdly, Feldman is a huge advocate of retakes…
Students should be given multiple opportunities to master skills. Many schools teach students about having a “growth mindset”. The sad truth is that our grading practices often contradict the ideas behind having a growth mindset. If our classrooms are to be a model of growth mindset then we as teachers need to be willing to offer retakes on assessments. This is the practice I’ve experimented the most with and I’ve learned a few things through this experimentation.
First of all, students need to be made aware of exactly what they need to know in order to be successful on the assessment. Often assessments aren’t fair and don’t assess what was actually taught. Students need repeated practice in the areas they are going to be assessed on. Too often, a concept is taught once and teachers assume that is enough. The truth is, that students need repeated exposure and practice. So, assessments should only include content that has been taught and that students have been allowed repeated practice with.
Secondly, students need to be given additional support and resources before retaking an assessment. If a student did not do well on an assessment, we need to investigate why. Was the assessment a fair one? Did students need more repeated practice? Did the student need more time to ask questions? Did the student need more supportive studying time? Whatever the answers, this should inform your next steps before a retake.
4. Fair grading scales
The 0-100 point scale needs to be abolished. Feldman reveals in his book how atrociously unfair having 59 variants of an F is. Why do we need that many variations of F? It’s absurd! All that the 0-100 point scale does is make it extremely difficult for students who fail to climb out of that hole. Felman proposes many alternatives in his book, Grading for Equity. One such alternative is minimum grading. The minimum grading scale would look like this:
This distribution of possible grades is now equally proportioned. There are only 10 variants of F and all the other letter grades as well. Whereas, with the 0-100 scale there are 59 variants of F and only 41 variants for passing.
5. Soft skills support
When teachers begin this work they often wonder how they can teach important life skills such as participation, time management, punctuality, listening, executive functioning etc. without including these skills in the gradebook. These elements of school are often termed, “soft skills”.
Teachers wonder, how will students be motivated to bring their notebook to class everyday, if it isn’t graded?
Feldman discusses in his book that teachers need to make the connection between soft skills and the successful understanding of content more transparent for students. This can be done by giving the responsibility of assessment of these soft skills to students. Teachers might give students a prompt such as this one to: “How was your learning affected when you didn’t bring your notebook to class, when you came late, when you didn’t do your homework when assigned, or participate in the discussion?” (Feldman, 214).
Soft skills are just as important as content knowledge because the successful application of soft skills leads to understanding of content knowledge. Teachers must make this connection clear to students by helping them set goals for themselves, allowing time for reflection of academic performance and empowering students to speak up about the resources they need to be successful.
On the surface, it may seem teachers are helpless in the face of the many challenges that equity issues have brought to the surface in our schools. The fact is we have a lot of power to make changes at a grassroots level in our classrooms, specifically with our grading practices. I believe one of our duties as educators is to question all the choices we make within our own classrooms.
One of the most important questions we can ask as teachers is this one: does this practice empower or disempower my students? If the answer is the latter, experimentation and change is needed.