Black Lives Matter and the Black@ social media movements were just a few of the reasons why this past year brought so many critical equity and justice issues to the forefront in the United States. And this renewed focus on systemic racism and bias has brought the American education system into the spotlight as well—and how much more work we still have to do. Each time I hear the calls for discussions about schools’ commitment to DEI, I’m reminded of my own experiences that still ring true for so many students today—and I’m reminded that schools are a microcosm of society that replicates institutional bias.
In high school, I was overlooked for admission into an Advanced Placement U.S. history course because a teacher in her assessment couldn’t see past my Jamaican accent, penmanship, and place as a recent immigrant. (Thankfully, I scored well on the New York State Regents Examination, and the department chair overrode the teacher’s decision.) And years later, I see how this kind of bias still persists.
While reflecting after an assessment workshop I attended, I remembered that I had a drawer filled with narrative assessment reports from varying grades and subjects that I had inherited but never got around to shredding. I decided to review the documents, and while doing so I noticed a pattern in the feedback. I realized that the word choice and tone often used drastically differ between white students and students of color even for students with similar abilities and skill mastery. I noticed that for students of color, the feedback would be direct and problem-focused (impulsive, disorganized, unmotivated, defiant), and the feedback would be free of any effort-based praise. In stark contrast, the feedback for white students would often be layered with praise for effort (works hard, asks questions) even if the student didn’t master the skill. Additionally, for white students, the feedback was often solutions-focused (energetic, advocates for themselves, intrinsically motivated).
These experiences and observations inspired me to examine assessments more closely and identify best practices to combat bias. Given that assessments—grades and narrative reports—are the universally adopted benchmark to admit, place, and advance, students into K-12 schools, colleges, and fellowships and internships, it’s important to ensure that these evaluation practices are fair and equitable. This is particularly important for students of color who are disproportionately impacted by bias in assessments. As educators, we must develop a toolkit to disrupt bias with equity at the heart of our practice.
According to an NAIS Snapshot Survey from July 2020, 66% of schools are relaunching their commitment to DEI work through professional development opportunities for teachers. One of those PD opportunities should be focused on helping teachers be more thoughtful and intentional about their assessment practices to ensure that all students, especially students of color, have a fair and equitable experience. I’m sure you’re thinking, “My bandwidth is limited, and I’m already stretched with too many students and numerous other teaching responsibilities.” Speaking as an educator and colleague, trust that I get it. We need to work differently, not more.
Assignment-Specific Rubrics and Guidelines
One of the more important things I’ve realized in my 14 years in education is that teachers––myself included––often lack necessary guidelines for assessing student work. I’m reminded of a situation where a parent advocating on their child’s behalf held me accountable for not having clear expectations. I was putting forth my best possible effort to expound upon what seemed to be missing from the student’s work. I specifically remember saying that her daughter’s work lacked “that extra oomph” of detail I wanted to see. The parent retorted, “That extra oomph? That is subjective.” And she was unequivocally correct in saying so.
I have yet to come across any teaching standard detailing and defining the “oomph” criteria. When the context and criteria for assessing work are ambiguous, bias can prevail, especially to the detriment of students of color.
Studies have shown that the absence of clear expectations for feedback can cause people to rely on stereotypes and biases when offering evaluations. The most common example of bias in feedback that shows up in the classroom is when Black students, particularly Black girls, ask questions that run counter to teacher expectations and advocate for themselves, their behavior is often regarded as “not being compliant” or “angry.” In research published in July 2020 in the APA journal Emotion, Amy G. Halberstadt, professor of psychology at North Carolina State University, and her colleagues coined the term “racialized anger bias” to describe this form of implicit bias. “Racialized anger bias means that people are seeing anger where none exists.”
To combat this issue, I recommend creating content-specific rubrics and guidelines that are clear, detailed, and specific to each assignment; this will restrict ambiguity or reliance on a teacher’s subjective interpretation of the output. The more specific guidelines students have, the better chance they complete a task in line with course expectations, which inspires trust and confidence in students and parents and ultimately reduces bias.
To create clear and bias-free learning and engagement expectations, teachers can use such criteria as:
- Asks and answers questions that help with understanding the lesson or activity or text.
- Uses resources, takes initiative, and asks the teacher for help when needed.
- During class discussions, participates by listening effectively, taking notes, and tracking the speaker.
- Considers voice equity by being mindful of the number of contributions to class conversations.
- Approaches work with a process-oriented mindset and looks for trends to spot effective effort.
Joe Feldman’s Grading for Equity also offers helpful insights and recommendations.
Language and Actions
When offering feedback, eliminate words that can be subjective and riddled with cultural and social connotations. Certain adjectives can be laden with bias (nice, pleasant, sweet, hardworking, polite). Such adjectives also tend to offer a vague description of a student’s ability and produce a fixed mindset that stunts growth. If we want to foster learning that is reflective and encourages growth, we should focus on highlighting effective efforts––developmentally appropriate actions that a student can take to create an enriching learning experience.
Report without judgment. Offer factual feedback to reduce bias and subjectivity. Before assigning a project, paper, or exam, first delineate skills in which students must show mastery or understanding. Then, share expectations with students and families ahead of time to encourage transparency and accountability. For example, instead of saying a student is good, say, “She contributes to the classroom community by practicing active listening techniques such as tracking the speaker and nodding in agreement. She also advocated for herself by asking for help.” Instead of saying “sloppy work,” you could say, “On one of the five line graphs she completed, she marked all of her data points correctly, connected them with a straight line and both axes are clearly labeled. The fifth graph can be revised to include the marking of the X and Y axes.”
Define clear and measurable areas of growth. Every learner must have an area of growth. Be clear and discuss step-by-step ways to grow with students and plan together. Instead of telling a student to work harder, tell her she “can grow by reviewing her daily notes for 10 minutes, complete one practice problem, and as we discussed, she can follow up with me during office hours to ask questions, get support, or ask for more practice problems.”
Share patterns. Observe students as they work, take notes, and share your notes with them. Ask questions about their decision-making and how it impacted the progress of their work; with this information, you can offer targeted feedback for growth. And be sure to incorporate regular student reflection and goal-setting to capture their effective efforts.
Assess anonymously. Far too often, we hear students who identify as immigrants, Latinx, and Black share that they have the ability to complete an accelerated workload but are rarely referred to advanced classes. Consider constructing a system for fairly advancing students that doesn’t consist of one or two teachers and counselors making referrals. Consider portfolios or project-based assignments so students are allowed to portray a mastery of skills in various ways.
Whenever possible, teachers should implement anonymous grading, where a student‘s work is free of identifiers prior to the assessment process. In a 2013 Teaching Psychology article, “The Risk of a Halo Bias as a Reason to Keep Students Anonymous During Grading,” the authors assert that using an anonymous grading process reduces the chance of teacher bias based on race/ethnicity and previous scores. Some learning management systems (LMS) like Canvas allow teachers to turn on the anonymous grading feature before assessing completed student work. Check to see if your school’s LMS has an anonymous grading capability, and try using it to grade one or two assignments.
Create a self-assessment process. Discomfort is part of the process of doing anti-bias and antiracist work. It’s important to remain reflective and take ownership. I openly acknowledge the mistakes I have unknowingly made in my teaching career and continue to learn from them. I’ve created an anti-bias checklist, which continues to evolve as I grow, and use it regularly:
My call to action is that we do anti-bias and antiracist work by creating fair and equitable assessment systems for all students, particularly students of color. If you’re buckling under the pressure of grading and workload, consider prioritizing revision as a tool for checking growth and understanding. You can work to develop a mindset and approach that doesn’t assume that every assignment must end in a grade but rather exists to foster the love of learning. Yes, this is hard work, but it is necessary work. Until educators are willing to be reflective and equitable in their assessment practices, we will continue to replicate systems that fail Black and brown students daily.
- Am I reporting without judgment? Am I offering fact-based and data-driven support for my claims?
- Am I making subjective statements or using words that could replicate stereotypes?
- Did I plan and offer clear expectations of mastery and understanding before assigning the test, essay, or project? Did I share this with students and families?
- Am I being clear about what a learner must start, stop, or continue doing to improve and grow?
- Am I consistent? Am I falling into patterns that are more favorable to some learners?
- Am I being biased?