Grading for Equity Blog

Professional work environments in the 21st century are all about collaboration and teamwork. We want our students to learn important skills of working together: to identify and utilize their unique talents as well as the talents of others, to contribute to a shared goal, and to manage, compromise, and coordinate so that the group functions effectively. We traditionally believe that assigning a group grade—where every student receives the same grade based on the group’s performance or product—rewards and incentivizes students for learning these skills.

However, assigning a group grade is inequitable.

First, it’s inaccurate. If the grade on the group’s product is given to everyone in the group, we have no confi­dence that the level of knowledge demonstrated by the report (on which the grade was based) represents each individual member’s level of knowledge that they learned by participating in the group’s work. For example, if the group is assigned to research and report on a concept, and the quality of the final report is a B, it is nearly impossible for the teacher to distinguish, much less to evaluate, each student’s indi­vidual role in earning that B and whether each student mastered a B level of that content. If a teacher knows (and how could she not know) that some students in a group will contribute more than others, why would she award every group member the same grade? After all, how would we feel if our entire grade level or department team received the same evaluation?

A group grade is often biased as well. If during group work a teacher assigns each student a grade based on their “collaboration skills”, such as how each student shows respect to other members of the group or manages the group’s time, this evaluation of student behavior is highly subjective and susceptible to a teacher’s bias. Additionally, a group grade isn’t effective at motivation; using grades as a behavior management strategy—to incentivize the student to work productively in a group—relies on a century-old, and now debunked, assumption that extrinsic motivation improves learning. It doesn’t. Once the incentive of the grade is taken away, students will no longer perform; they won’t have learned to be intrinsically motivated to collaborate.

At its essence, a group grade confuses means with ends. The purpose of group work is not to create some product in which all members participate, but for each student to learn specific skills or content through the group’s work together. A group report is intended to teach important content to the entire group, and the only way to accurately assess the success of that group’s work together is to individually assess each group member’s understanding of the content the group work was designed to teach. If the group works together like a well-oiled machine and completes a high-quality project, but not all members of the group learned the content that project was intended to teach, what good was the collaboration and project com­pletion? We can’t argue that at least the group learned how to work well as a group, because the best measure of whether students worked well as a group is whether they learned the intended content, through an assessment of each individual student.

Does that mean we should stop assigning group work? Should we no longer teach or value collaboration? Of course not. These are essential skills, but we have to teach them as means to an end—we use collaboration skills with each other because doing so yields more learning, not because we get points for it. In the professional workplace, you aren’t valued as an employee simply because you are a good listener or collaborator; you’re valued because your good listening and collaboration skills makes you more productive and produce better outcomes. We must use rubrics that clearly describe what collaboration looks like, give students feedback on how they collaborate, have their group self-assess–How did our work together improve each of our understanding? How did we behave toward each other to get the best from each of us?

Learning to collaborate and work in a group are essential skills for a student’s success. We need to value it by showing students why it matters–not by putting it in our grading, which renders our grades less accurate and less equitable–but by connecting it to what effective group work in classrooms yields: greater learning for each student.

Who makes decisions in schools? Principals frequently promote “shared decision-making” or “distributed leadership” as a signal to teachers that their voices matter. A principal knows that teachers are more likely to implement a policy consistently—whether it be consequences for being tardy, dress codes, or common assessments—when teachers are part of the decision-making process.

Unfortunately, it can be very difficult for principals to truly share decisions. After all, the principal is ultimately responsible for the school’s outcomes, and teachers often cast the principal as the problem-solver of the school. Plus, principals can struggle with handling conflicting opinions among the teachers and facilitating toward a solution. Uncertain of how to handle these dynamics, principals revert to making a decision independently—it’s quicker, easier, and avoids conflict (or at least it appears to).

A perfect example is when a school has inconsistent grading across classrooms, or high failure rates. Many principals solve this problem by simply creating a policy, thereby avoiding the emotions and conflict that are unavoidable in discussions of grading. They prohibit teachers from giving zeros, or require teachers to weight homework for no more than 30% of a student’s grade.

Typically, top-down grading policies go over like a lead balloon.

Some teachers, particularly those with less experience, may accept and even appreciate new policies so they can focus on their daily instruction. However, most teachers resist and even reject mandates affecting how they grade. To many teachers, grading is their last island of autonomy, the one part of their work where they can exercise their full professional judgment, unconstrained by pressures from outside their classroom. A teacher’s grading system reflects what she believes about how students learn, what they need to learn, how to give feedback to promote that learning, and how to measure and report their achievement. Teachers may grade in ways that are traditional and unintentionally harmful to student learning, but in an atmosphere heavy with mandates on our teachers, grading is something that is theirs.

Additionally, when the principal simply creates a grading policy and teachers aren’t given the opportunity to learn about the history and weaknesses of traditional grading, their underlying beliefs about grading remain unchanged. Predictably, teachers simply create work-arounds to the policy, tweaking the policy until it aligns with their beliefs, or ignoring it altogether. Teachers may view the principal’s unilateral move as an insult to their professional judgment, resentful that the principal infringed on the sacred territory of their grading without their consent, and cynical about the concept of shared decision-making.

Contrast this with an approach that invites teachers into the discussion of grading. When teachers actively learn about, experiment with, and discuss grading policies that are more accurate, fair, and promote learning—in other words, when teachers are treated as professionals and as learners—they reconsider their traditional practices and adopt more effective alternatives. Teachers in our partner schools reported at the beginning of this school year that they were many traditional grading practices—for example, assigning zeros on a 100-point scale, awarding extra credit, weighing homework as a large percentage of the total grade, and not allowing retakes. This Spring, after learning about and prototyping new practices, sharing results with their fellow teachers, and collaborative problem-solving, those teachers think completely differently about grading. They want their school to report student behaviors and academic performance separately on the report card, to have all teachers use a 5-point scale or not to give zeros, to allow test retakes without penalty, to have homework count for a very low percentage (or not included in the grade at all), and to use other standards-based grading practices. They want to end extra credit, “effort”, “participation”, and the subjectivity that infiltrates teacher’s grades.

The irony, beauty, and validation of this work is that at our partner schools, teachers end up endorsing, even demanding, grading policies that they never would have supported if the principal had mandated them. They passionately demand that their school change grading policies to be more accurate, bias-resistant, and motivational—the pillars of equitable grading—because they have seen the rewards of these practices. Student passing rates increase, grades are more consistent with standardized tests, teachers have more confidence in their lesson design and instruction, and students have more ownership over their grades.

And importantly, these discussions exemplify shared decision-making and distributed leadership. As much as the principals might wish, grading practices are too woven into teachers’ identities and beliefs to change through administrative edicts. Grading improvements must come from the teachers who, as professional learners, see the results for their students and themselves.


How do electronic gradebooks undermine teachers’ professionalism and anchor them to an inaccurate and unfair grading system?

Grading has come a long way from the paper grid sheets I used when I started teaching. Grading programs are now integrated into a suite of “Student Information Software”, or “SIS” that promise to make it easier for teachers to categorize and weight different types of assignments, enter student scores, and arrive at a final grade. Even though grading programs and software are designed to make grading more transparent and simpler for teachers, they actually prevent teachers from grading accurately and fairly.

The ease of the grading software has unintended consequences that affect both teachers and students. Because it is so simple for the teacher to have different categories of assignments, I have seen teachers include in the grade nearly every element of a student’s existence—tests, quizzes, homework, classwork, participation, effort, attitude, growth, attendance, preparation, projects, and even extra credit—to which the teacher assigns a percentage weight (for example, tests are 50% of student’s final grade). The following example is from an actual teacher’s syllabus:

Homework: 12½%
Classwork: 12½%
Effort: 10%
Participation: 15%
Tests: 30%
Projects: 15%
Growth: 5%

While this functionality allows a teacher to assign a relative value to different types of student tasks, and to let students know that everything “counts”, it becomes nearly impossible for the teacher to truly understand how a grade is calculated. When a student or parent questions the final grade, the teacher is left with the weak response, “That’s how the program calculated it.” When a student asks what he can do to improve the grade, the teacher cannot with any certainty advise the student about how to increase the final percentage, but can only recommend broad (and generally unhelpful) strategies, like doing better on tests or handing in more homework. Though we believe that these grading programs, which allow one-click progress reports, make our grading more transparent to students, this nearly impenetrable complexity prevents students from seeing the relationship between their efforts and results. Instead, it unfortunately reinforces what many students have learned: their grade is arbitrarily assigned by the teacher, unrelated to their achievement and work, and therefore is a description not of what they know and have accomplished, but of who they are.

Additionally, too many teachers feel dependent and even intimidated by the software. When the grading program calculates the final grades, the teacher can feel no choice but to submit those final grades, even if they do not match her assessment and professional judgment of her students. The bolder teacher will attempt to “trick” the grading program: to manipulate the calculation so that it gives students the grade she believes is correct. For example, if a student has a 89.4%, only .1% away from an 89.5% that rounds up to an “A”, the teacher will scour the scores entered and search for ways to make the calculation add .1%. Perhaps she’ll drop the lowest test grade, or offer an extra credit assignment to the student, or provide a test retake. Teachers might create a category that is entirely subjective—like “effort”—with the explicit purpose of using that category to “correct” the final calculation if it doesn’t match her judgment. Grading devolves into a game of points and manipulation—and that’s for the teacher!

Accepting and relying on grading software entrenches the problems of our grading systems and hogties teachers. In my work with schools, teachers without exception make their grading more fair and accurate only to find their efforts blocked by the grading software. Grading programs don’t allow retakes (i.e., multiple grades to be entered for a single test), a 1-4 grading scale (which allows a more proportional grading scale), or a category weighted at 0% (so scores can be recorded for feedback without being included in the final calculation). Teachers feel so proud of their improved practices and see their students succeeding at unprecedented rates, only to become frustrated at things beyond their control. Their school’s or district’s grading programs, designed by non-educators, force them to use traditional and discredited methods that make grades inaccurate, unfair, complicated, and obfuscating—in short, that make it hard to teach in ways that best help students learn. Let’s be smart consumers and advocates, and demand that the software designers respond to our growing understanding of effective grading practices. We as professionals, and more importantly, our students, deserve it.

“Doubting their own professional judgment, teachers often believe that grades calculated from statistical algorithms are more accurate and more reliable.”–Thomas R. Guskey

Teachers, as trained professionals, resist scripted curriculum, administrative mandates, and bureaucratic regulations. Yet too often we accept our grading software, which replicate a traditional approach to determining grades: add up or average each student’s earned points or percentages, sometimes within weighted categories (“tests”, “participation”, “homework”, etc.). This outdated approach to describing student performance has been shown to be both inaccurate and unfair.  We must stop allowing grading programs to supercede our expertise as professional educators, especially when it comes to something as important as our students’ grades.

There are three problems with relying on grading software: one mathematical, one conceptual, and one professional.

Mathematical : No one would say that a professional golfer’s handicap should be based on adding together her score on her first day of golfing plus all scores she received since then up to today, and averaging them. However, we continue to do this in our grades when we use software that averages student scores; a student’s early scores pull down any improved performance. We teachers know what mathematicians know–that averaging a set of student’s scores isn’t always the most accurate way to describe that student; it essentially penalizes them for where they started (and inequitably rewards students who came to our classes already knowing material). We could use an alternative algorithm–like the mode. Or, if we believe that a student’s grade should reflect where they end, not where they started, the grade should represent the student’s most recent performance.

Conceptual : Grading software invites us to describe assignments by category and enter points for each, and the software pops out an averaged and weighted score for each student. But when we include in a grade a student’s behaviors (how often she followed directions, came on time, etc.) as well as academic performance (her scores on tests), we warp and confuse what the grade represents. When being on time counts in the grade, then the prompt student with weak content understanding gets the same grade as the student who is tardy but knows the content. Any grade can represent a wide variety of possible percentages and category weight combinations. When the same grade can describe so many different performance profiles of students, then our “hodgepodge” grades may not represent anything.

Professional : Teachers confess to me that at the end of a grading term, they look at their students’ final scores. If the grades seem about right, they leave them; if they seem wrong, teachers manually adjust prior scores and categories until the software generates an appropriate grade. How absurd that the professional educator is relegated to outfoxing the software so the software can validate the professional’s opinion!

Why then, when we know the software generates inaccurate scores, do we continue to use it? Well, none of us wants to go back to the days of paper gradebooks, calculator typing, and scratch paper. And few of us have the time and savvy to develop technological work-arounds with the our school’s or district’s grading software. Besides, most schools and districts wouldn’t let us deviate from the pre-sets anyway.

In Crescendo’s partnerships with schools and districts, we help teachers develop more accurate and fair grading practices, and support those decisions by working with the district administration and technology specialists to improve and reconfigure the grading software. In all cases, we have found that the software can adapt to support improved grading practices—after all, teachers are the clients of the software companies, not the other way around.

So teachers–as you complete the final touches on your gradebook this June, don’t simply defer to the grades generated by your software—grades aren’t objective just because they’re calculated by a computer, they aren’t accurate because they use a mathematical formula, and they’re not best for your students simply because it’s convenient. You are a professional educator who is in the best position to make accurate and fair judgments about your students’ performance. Equipped with accurate and fair grading practices, trust your mind instead of your machine.

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