A hallmark of a high-quality school is that the school is equitable through every element of its work—including curriculum, discipline, instruction, and school culture. What often isn’t considered a measure of a school’s equity is a school’s approach to grading its students—how students earn grades and how teachers derive them. Though grades might be considered a technical and ancillary aspect of a school, many common and traditional policies are out of dateand misleading, and they often perpetuate inequities.

The problem is not that teachers knowingly grade students unfairly; on the contrary, they grade students based on their own well-intended approaches. But because teachers rarely receive any formal training in how to grade, they typically grade as they were graded, using practices that are not only unsupported by research but are idiosyncratic, For example, some teachers may include homework performance, or attendance, or extra credit in the grade; others not. Some allow retakes, consider growth or effort, or award points for “participation”; others don’t. Some include group grades, or don’t allow late work; othersdo. Grades for comparable academic performance even may vary within a teacher’s classroom because of teachers’ self-created approaches to grading: the student who excels in the course content but consistently hands in homework late may get the same grade as a student who hands in assignments on time but is weak in understanding. This variability creates confusion over what a grade means and can increase students’ stress: if every teacher grades differently, then students need to learn course contentand navigate each teacher’s unique grading structure.

The lack of training in effective grading also results in teachers using traditional practices that undermine equity. For example, when homework assignments are factored into grades, students with significant family resources and quiet places in their homes to study are more likely to complete assignments than students without these advantages. Grading is also often corrupted by implicit racial, class, and gender biases, particularly when behavior is factored into academic grades. Awarding points for behaviors imposes on students a culturally specific definition of appropriate behavior and interprets their behaviors through anunavoidably biased lens. Plus, when students are graded on behaviors they are essentially judged for every action in a class—are they taking notes? Raising their hand? Prepared with a notebook? On time? Classrooms then become spaces where students need to constantly “perform,” which increases stress and anxiety in students, particularly for those students who have to work harder and “code switch” to conform to a teacher’s vision of high-quality “participation.”

Even the mathematical calculations of many common grading practices are problematic, often discouraging student achievement and progress.Despite the contemporary emphasis on growth mindset and learning through practice and experimentation, existing models fail to recognize growth over time in mathematically sound ways—an early F and a later A average to a C, which disadvantages students who begin a course with weaker education background, and doesn’t recognize those students’ growth.

In recent years schools have made significant progress in making their disciplinary procedures more equitable. Sparked by overwhelming evidence that showed that black and brown students have been subject to disproportionate suspensions or dismissals, schools took a hard look at the many ways in which traditional ways of discipline were susceptible to bias. As a result, many schools have adopted new approaches to discipline, such as restorative justice practices, and excluded subjective infractions such as showing “defiance” or “disrespect.” These significant changes to longstanding district discipline policies demonstrate how new research can lead to improved practice. We need to make similar changes to how we grade.

More Equitable and Effective Practices

While traditional grading practices are the norm, a growing number of teachers and schools have introduced more effective grading practices that can result in more accurate, transparent, bias-resistant grading that encourage and motivate students to learn. These practices:

  • Are mathematically accurate to reflect growth and learning as well as describe a student’s level of mastery, such as using a 0–4instead of a 0–100 point scale; avoiding zeros; and assigning heavier weight to more recent performance and growth instead of averaging performance over time.
  • Value knowledge, not environment or behavior, by no longer grading subjectively interpreted behaviors such as a student’s “effort” or “participation”; focusing grades on required content or standards, not extra credit or homework completion; not using grades to reward compliance; and providing alternative consequences for cheating or missed assignments.
  • Support hope and a growth mindset, by allowing test/projectretakes to emphasize and reward learning rather than to penalize; replacing previous scores with current scores; and renaming grades.
  • “Lift the veil” on how to succeed, by creating effective, standards-aligned rubrics and by using simplified grade calculations and standards-based scales and gradebooks.
  • Build soft skills without including them in grades, by using peer/self- evaluation and reflection; a more expansive range of feedback strategies; building self- regulation.

Such improved grading practices employ mathematically sound methods that better reflect learning over time and removenonacademic and subjective considerations such as behavior and comportment, while reinforcing student motivation and soft skills. The Equitable Grading Project, partnering with two independent evaluation firms, conducted research in multiple schools and grades in four states that include urban, rural, and suburban public schools, and elite independent schools. Their research found that when schools use these more equitable grading practices:

  • Teacher-assigned grades correlate more strongly with standardized assessment scores.
  • Grade inflation decreases. The number of students receiving Ds and Fs commonly decreases, and decreases more dramatically for vulnerable and underserved student populations (including African Americans, Latinos, students from low-income families,and students receiving special education services).
  • Conversely, the number of students receiving As decreases,and decreases more dramatically among more privileged student populations (whites, students from higher-income families).
  • Student-teacher relationships improve and classrooms become less stressful.
District implementation strategies

Lessons from districts implementing these approaches suggest how to introduce equitable grading practices that build support from teachers and the community from the beginning.

  • Build buy-in from educators by letting them lead the process. A smart first step is to host a workshop/strategy session for middle and high school administrators to learn about equitable grading and to build interest and commitment to this work. Districts can also hold closed study sessions on equitable grading with their boards of trustees to gain approval and build a “tailwind” for launching the work.
  • Pilot-test approaches through action research led by teachers. The next step is to develop a pilot cohort of teachers, with initial workshops that involve department chairs and teachers willing to explore new approaches, and instructional coaches. Thefirst cohort can learn about improved and more equitable grading practices and pilot these practices, examining results within a structured series of action research cycles.
  • Expand the effort over time, using positive results to win over doubters. Those teachers, as “early adopters” can share their experiences—both the successes and the challenges—with their colleagues. Districts can assemble additional cohorts of teachers, gradually generating a “critical mass” of teachers who haveimplemented the practices and can testify to the powerful impact of the more equitable grading practices.
The Way Forward

School leaders need to recognize that despite our deepest commitment to high-quality teaching and learning, traditional grading practices undermine educators’ shared commitment to equitable educational opportunities, the professionalism of our teachers, and the integrity of our education system as a whole. The hard work of putting new gradingsystems into practice will require teachers to critically examine the waythey grade and to learn new practices. It also will require leaders at every level—principals, district administrators, and state policymakers—toimplement and reinforce new grading policies and practices thatemphasize growth and challenge bias. It also requires stepping back and rethinking grading through a new lens. If equity is a priority of ourschools, then the way we grade must be equitable too.

Joe Feldman, M.A.
Joe Feldman, M.A. is a former teacher, principal, and district administrator with 20 years’ experience in education. Feldman earned a bachelor degree from Stanford University, a master’s in Teaching and Curriculum from Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a law degree from NYU. He is the author of Grading for Equity (2018) and CEO of Crescendo Education Group, which works with school districts, public and private schools, teacher education programs and postsecondary institutions to improve the accuracy and equity of grading.