June 4, 2021

Take 5… grading for equity

Posted by Laura Guertin

Image of book cover, Grading for EquityI’ve been spending some time reflecting upon my grading practices in my courses. I read Blum’s edited book Ungrading – Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), but wasn’t convinced that this practice would be a good fit for my introductory-level earth science courses for non-STEM majors. I did a deeper dive into an Introduction to Rubrics – An Assessment Tool to Save Grading Time, Convey Effective Feedback, and Promote Student Learning, but I came away from feeling that rubrics are too much of a checklist and not enough personal and authentic feedback for all students to grow.

When I started reading Joe Feldman’s Grading for Equity – What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms, I started seeing some ideas to consider. Here are five takeaways from the book I’d like to share. (*Note that a preview of the book is available in Google Books)


[1] Renaming Grades

Could we increase student motivation and achievement just by dropping the A-F scale? Chapter 11 discusses one example of replacing letters and numbers with short descriptors to the expectation for learning is more explicit. Although letter grades and the GPA scale in higher education are not going away, within our own classrooms, could we provide students feedback as “Approaching” and “Not Yet Met” instead of a C or D on an assignment? The author shares “many schools have found that the seemingly cosmetic change from the letters of grades bolsters the school’s internal culture of a growth mindset in which every student is on a trajectory toward eventual academic success” (p. 165). His examples were from pre-college institutions, but again, could there be enough of an impact on students if we did this in our own classrooms?


[2] The Problems With Averaging

Chapters 7 and 8 of Grading for Equity focus on accuracy, that “our grading must use calculations that are mathematically sound, easy to understand, and correctly describe a student’s level of academic performance” (p. 72). The mean (average) of a collection of scores is the typical way instructors calculate a final number to then assign a letter grade. Our online course management systems are also set up to work with generating averages for an assignment category. But what if we used the median and/or the mode as our approach to describe student performance, as these calculations resist outliers. There is an example in the book with five numbers (91, 92, 40, 94, 94) – the average of the five is 82.2%, the mode is 94%, and the median is 92%. We were all students once and have had that one bad test score that brought down our course grade – it is surprising that even based upon our own experiences, we continue the practice of using the average and not exploring the other mathematical options.


[3] Examining Extra Credit

Chapter 9 asks if extra credit is really equitable and bias-resistant – and responds with reasons as to why it is not. For example, when we offer extra credit in a course, we reinforce for our students that our class isn’t really about learning or mastery of standards, but about acquiring enough points. The author also compares extra credit to a “Choose Your Own Adventure” game, where students can select how to get the points for the grade they want. The strongest point in this section for me is the inequity, as “although it’s optional and open to all students, [extra credit] doesn’t allow all students to take equal advantage because it requires extra resources beyond the course requirements” (p. 114) such as tickets, time, or support needed outside of class and perhaps the campus.


[4] Group Work Without a Group Grade

Students are not the biggest fans of working in groups, but we know working collaboratively is an important skill for students to develop. How grades are assigned for group work can cause even more anxiety and frustration in working with peers for one grade, or grading each other, etc. But what if we start by explaining that the purpose of the group work is to learn the content, tell students they must individually demonstate the learning of the content, and brainstorm how everyone can help each other learn the content and complete the required tasks? What if the rubric the group is given is one that reflects norms of work and expectations – or even have the students co-create the rubric (again, not graded)?


[5] Our Efforts Must Extend Beyond the Grades

The book Grading for Equity shares three pillars for equitable grading – accuracy, bias-resistant, and motivational. But we also need to make sure our classroom practices and assessments are also designed through an equitable lens. There are a number of resources available on equitable teaching practices, including a recent (May 2021) webinar through the AAAS-IUSE program titled Promoting Equity in Undergraduate STEM Classrooms through Pedagogical Approaches, available online for viewing along with supplemental resources, and the November 2020 NASEM Imagining the Future of Undergraduate STEM Education Symposium with its commissioned paper, Current Innovations in STEM Education and Equity Needs for the Future.