One School's Approach to Equitable Grading

Grades determine some of the most important decisions that can affect students’ life trajectories: course placement, athletic eligibility, college admission, scholarships, and employment possibilities. Grades also profoundly affect how our students think about themselves—who they are, what they’re good at, and whether school is a place they can succeed.
But parents, teachers, and school administrators are frequently stunned to learn that many common grading practices are often outdated, inaccurate, and undermine student success. Even when armed with this knowledge, teachers and administrators avoid confronting the complexities of grading, thinking that if they try to challenge the status quo, even if it is inequitable, they won’t have the energy, the time, or the support.
It can seem daunting, and it is hard work, but it can be done. One independent school was ready to take on the challenge.

The Grading and Equity Connection

In 1945, Georgetown Day School (GDS) opened as the first integrated school in Washington, DC. It was founded on a commitment to academic excellence, educational innovation, and social justice, all framed within an umbrella of equity. These ideas continue to fuel the school’s work to serve its diverse K–12 student body of 1,075 and are guiding a major school initiative to unite the lower/middle and upper campuses. The school community is also using this initiative as an opportunity to reimagine the school’s programming, curriculum, and pedagogical priorities.
Debby Previna, middle school principal, decided that the time was right to tackle grading, an issue that had nagged, confused, and confounded her since she became an administrator. Despite GDS teachers’ unified belief in the potential of every student and a heartfelt dedication to equity and engaging pedagogy, each one had different, and seemingly idiosyncratic, grading practices. The practices varied within each grade level, within each discipline, and even when two teachers taught the same course using identical curriculum. The result was that a student’s grade could be more reflective of the teacher’s approach to grading than the student’s academic performance. 
Some teachers deducted points if homework was late, while others accepted work without penalty. Some teachers awarded points for correct answers on homework, while others gave full credit if a student showed effort. Some teachers emphasized homework, weighing those assignments at 50 to 60 percent of the grade, while others weighed homework at 0 percent. Teachers’ views on extra-credit assignments and retakes on tests also weren’t consistent.
These practices worked against the school’s mission, stymying the learning process and inadvertently injecting into grades the teachers’ biases about students’ gender, race, or income. They realized that students were so stressed about grades and consumed with amassing points, in large part, because each teacher had their own unique system of grading. In addition, because many of the teachers’ grading practices rewarded or punished students for every assignment, activity, and behavior in the classroom, students often were less willing to take risks and make mistakes, and cared less about learning.
But Previna didn’t blame the teachers. After all, none of them—herself included—had ever received any training or support with how to grade. Much to Previna’s frustration, every administrator she reached out to for advice bemoaned the variability of teachers’ grading practices, and most chalked it up to an unavoidable part of schools. Previna knew that if she didn’t address her faculty’s grading, as intimidating as it seemed, all of their other innovations and equity work would be weakened. 

Learning and Unlearning

Previna knew that her first step couldn’t be to launch a full-scale re-examination of the school’s grading practices; she needed the teachers to see how their current approaches contradicted their school’s ideals. She started by sharing a few articles about the weaknesses of common grading practices with the entire middle school faculty. Then she invited all faculty to research, examine, and imagine ways to align grading to their vision for progressive and equitable education. To her surprise, nearly half of the faculty showed interest.  
With the help of Crescendo Education Group, Previna capitalized on this momentum. In spring 2018, 20 of her middle school teachers participated in a series of workshops to help them begin critically examining many traditional grading practices. They first learned how many common grading practices were created during the Industrial Revolution and are based on century-old beliefs about teaching, learning, and human potential that have long since been debunked. By continuing to use these practices, we contradict our current understanding about effective teaching and learning. The teachers learned how, for example:
  • Although many grading practices rely on concepts of extrinsic rewards and punishments, those approaches undermine intrinsic motivation, which is important to critical and creative thinking and learning.
  • Penalizing students for their errors during the period of their learning when they are supposed to make mistakes—including student performance on homework, for example—is in conflict with growth mindset messaging.
  • Grading software’s calculations are often mathematically unsound and demotivate students.
  • Implicit biases operate and infect our grading when we include student behavior in the grade.
  • With many common grading practices we inadvertently reward students with privilege and punish those without, and perpetuate cycles of inequities.
After studying the research about grading and learning about research-supported grading practices that are more accurate, more bias-resistant, and develop intrinsic motivation in students, the pilot group of middle school faculty members was excited to start using them. These more equitable practices included using alternatives to the 0–100 scale, not including behavior in the grade, ending extra credit, using rubrics, and developing a culture of retakes and redos. 

The Outcomes

A year after implementing these practices across the middle school, teachers started seeing results—many of which were surprising to them—and generated a body of evidence that shows the powerful results of equitable grading practices, including:
  • Students were less stressed, and classroom environments felt more relaxed and supportive of learning. “On the day of the test, students were tense, and I was tense. But after the test when they were allowed to review and reflect on their mistakes and make corrections, they were so relaxed, they were able to work faster, and they were able to make connections that they couldn’t make the day before,” says the math department chair.
  • Grade inflation decreased when teachers no longer padded grades with points for participation or homework completion. Teachers expanded how they gave feedback on nonacademic skills, including with phone calls home or separate reports.
  • Grades are more accurate and less biased. “Using a rubric is making grading more accurate because sometimes you’re biased,” says one teacher. “Without it as a reference, I might give a better grade to a ‘good’ student, but with the rubric, even if you’re the top student, I can give you the grade you earned.”
  • Students’ motivation increased. Rates of homework completion in many classes are the same or even higher than when homework points were included in the grade. And to teachers’ surprise, students continued to submit work on time, or turned it in only a day or two after the deadline, and frequently with higher quality.
  • Changes to grading practices leverage other aspects of programmatic reimagining, including development of course standards and high-quality and valid assessments.
Most schoolwide grading policies are enacted by administrative fiat, usually leading to resentment with no real changes or consistency. But Previna believes that because her faculty now has experience with these tested grading practices, there is more progress toward developing new schoolwide grading policies. The teachers aren’t in lockstep agreement, but they are developing enough evidence and testimonies across the subjects to support more common and more equitable grading practices schoolwide. The pilot faculty members found the benefits so significant that they asked Previna to enlist the entire school to learn and try these new practices. Seeing the middle school teachers’ success, the upper school is interested in continuing this work.
Want to learn more about equitable grading? Look for the Summer issue of Independent School magazine for an overview on the impact grading has on student health and well-being. Also, check out the NAIS webinar, “Grading for Equity,” to hear student, teacher, and researcher voices alongside quantitative data that explain the impact of these improved practices.
Joe Feldman

Joe Feldman is CEO of Crescendo Education Group, a consulting firm based in Oakland, California. He is a former teacher, principal, and district administrator, and the author of Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms.