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Grading for Equity with Grading for Growth, Part 1
Do alternative assessments really improve equity?
Alternative grading systems bring many strengths to your classroom. One of the greatest strengths is the possibility they bring to make assessments and grading more equitable for students. By “equitable,” I mean actively working to ensure students access to the same opportunities. This means both working to remove barriers to access, but also identifying and changing practices that disproportionately advantage some students based on their backgrounds.
By design, alternative grading systems respect the ways that humans actually learn. That design, built right into the bones of the system, is a key feature that can support and encourage students’ learning rather than enacting barriers and discouraging it.
But, more equitable assessments don’t just happen automatically. Improving equity is an intentional activity. Implementing alternative grading “from a box” without careful thought won’t necessarily improve equity, and can even harm students if implemented thoughtlessly. These practices must be implemented with careful reflection and care for the underlying principles.
So, how can you use alternative grading to make your assessments more equitable? What aspects of alternative grading support this goal? And how do we know that these practices really are more equitable? That’s the goal of my posts for the next two weeks.
… grading is a critical element to affirmatively promote equity, to stop rewarding students because of their wealth, privilege, environment, or caregivers’ education and to prevent us from punishing students for their poverty, gaps in education, or environment. (Grading for Equity, p. 14)
Feldman identifies three “elements” that describe the characteristics of equitable assessment, which we’ll focus on in this series. (Feldman actually calls these elements “pillars,” so to reduce confusion with our own four pillars of alternative grading, I’m sticking with the terminology “elements of equitable grading”.)
While Feldman focuses on K-12 education, he argues (and we agree) that many of the same principles apply directly to higher education.
In the next two posts, I’ll show how our four pillars of alternative grading align with and support Feldman’s three elements of equitable grading. As a quick recap, our pillars are:
Clearly defined standards.
Helpful, actionable feedback.
Marks (if any) that indicate progress.
Reassessments without penalty.
There is a lot to consider, and so I highly recommend reading Grading for Equity for more details. I’ll summarize some issues that need to be considered to ensure equitable implementation of alternative grading, highlight ways that inequity can hide within, or even be encouraged by, alternative grading. and include recommendations on practices to use and others to avoid.
Feldman’s three elements of equitable grading practices are accuracy, motivation, and bias-resistance. In this post, we’ll dig into the first two elements. We’ll take an even deeper dive into bias-resistance next week.
By “accuracy,” Feldman means that grades should validly describe a student’s level of subject knowledge. Everything that contributes to a grade must have a clear academic meaning, and final grades should be determined in a way that represents students’ actual knowledge.
Our first pillar–clear standards–is key to meeting this requirement: When student work is evaluated against clear content standards, the resulting grades have concrete meaning in terms of course goals.
Feldman points out that in order for grades to be accurate, they must be represented using a meaningful scale. This is because (as we’ve discussed several times) traditional points and weighted averages lack real meaning. In particular, partial credit masks student understanding. Marks that indicate progress (our third pillar) directly address this problem. Such marks directly connect a student’s work to the standards being assessed and communicate clear information about a student’s progress in learning course content.
However, “accuracy” also means that grades should represent a student’s current level of understanding rather than the path that they took to reach that understanding. By the end of the semester, we should then see a student’s ultimate level of understanding (at least in the context of the class) rather than some sort of weighted average of their previous attempts and struggles. This kind of accuracy is supported by our fourth pillar: Students have opportunities to complete reassessments without penalty as they engage in a feedback loop. The “without penalty” part is essential, because it ensures that only a student’s eventual level of understanding, not their initial attempts, is represented in their grade.
By including only a student’s final level of understanding, we avoid inequitable practices such as permanently “averaging in” early failures. When an instructor uses an average or median to combine grades from different points in time, they confound a student’s earlier learning process with their eventual understanding. This penalizes students who need time and practice to learn, even when they eventually come to full understanding. In other words, averages penalize students who engage in the real, human process of learning. If our goal is for students to learn new ideas – and for grades to be a measure of that learning – we can’t expect them to be able to “perform” immediately. Learning involves feedback loops, and feedback loops take time. Averages can end up primarily rewarding students who come into class already knowing some of the material, and that can be due to factors far outside of their actual learning, such as which K-12 schools they attended (and hence where their parents could afford to live).
Instructors designing an alternatively graded class, especially one using Standards-Based Grading, are faced with the choice between keeping a student’s most recent mark on a standard, and their best mark. Feldman recommends keeping the most recent mark to support accuracy. From a record-keeping viewpoint it is often much simpler to keep a student’s best mark. A good compromise comes from requiring students to meet a standard more than once, and keeping the best attempts. Multiple attempts, if spaced out, can assess whether students have retained knowledge over time. This ensures that students are able to both learn and retain skills.
To sum up this element: Equitable grading practices need to accurately represent a student’s content knowledge. By grading against clear standards, using marks that indicate progress towards meeting those standards, and allowing reassessments without penalty, alternative grading begins to undo some of the inequitable flaws of traditional grades.
But, accuracy is not the entire story…
The second of Feldman’s elements of equitable grading is motivation. Specifically, grades should be motivational, which he describes as encouraging students to “strive for academic success, persevere, accept struggles and setbacks, and to gain critical lifelong skills.” Feldman’s examples of motivational practices include ones that “lift the veil,” by making the expectations and processes of assessment clearer to all students.
Motivation in this sense is built into our four pillars, especially our second pillar of helpful, actionable feedback which is critical to motivating students. The practice of providing feedback without a grade has long been established to encourage intrinsic motivation, while a focus on summative grades demotivates students. Opportunities to use feedback through reassessments, encoded in our fourth pillar of reassessments without penalty, help motivate students to view learning struggles as waypoints on the road to success rather than as permanent failures. The concrete next steps given by helpful feedback and marks that indicate progress help students understand what they need to do and how to do it.
Here we must be careful, because not all feedback is helpful. In particular, feedback that simply lists errors, or attacks a student (even unintentionally), can be severely demotivating. Helpful feedback is necessarily aimed at helping a student learn and improve.
Other grading practices that Feldman identifies as supporting motivation will sound very familiar, such as renaming grades to better describe their purpose, using rubrics, and grading with scales that include descriptions or “standard” meanings. Each of these is supported by our third pillar: marks that indicate progress. By indicating progress, marks are oriented towards encouraging success without punishing failure.
However, it’s possible to implement alternative grading yet do a poor job of explaining what each mark means, leaving students in the dark about what these strange letters on their work actually mean. Likewise, watch out not to give students muddy explanations (or none at all) of what it means to meet a standard. Leaving students in the dark about these items is the opposite of “lifting the veil” and only widens the gap between those who arrive in your class already knowing how to “play the game” of academia, and those who don’t. Make the rules of the game clear to all students, rather than hiding them and seeing who has the resources to figure them out.
Likewise, Feldman recommends coarse grade scales that involve fewer, more accurate gradations (and hence less variability between graders). While this is not baked into our pillars, it is the most common way that marks are used: often just two or three options, such as “Meets expectations,” “Revisions needed,” or “New attempt required.”
Further motivational practices include allowing reassessments and developing a culture of feedback. Our four pillars strongly support each of these, although developing a culture of valuing and acting on feedback is not something that automatically happens. It is essential to help students understand the purpose of feedback, and how to act on it by reviewing previous work, studying effectively, and making use of reassessments. Simply adding feedback and reassessments into a course and hoping students use them may not make a change. I’ll also add that clearly defined standards make unstated expectations visible and help students understand what they are learning and why. Each of these is especially important for first generation students and others who aren’t already familiar with the language and other skills necessary to navigate the “hidden curriculum” of higher education.
While I’ve argued that our four pillars implement many of Feldman’s motivational grading practices, it is not automatically true that alternatively graded classes are inherently focused on growth and learning and value productive failure. They can be, and it’s much easier for alternatively graded classes to be oriented in this way, but this happens only when the instructor’s words and actions support those values. Seemingly small instructor choices (such as refusing to consider student work after a deadline) can be demotivational, even in the context of alternative grading. Students can view alternative grading systems as alien and opaque at first, especially compared to more familiar points and partial credit. If an instructor ignores these very real concerns and assumes that students will simply “pick up” alternative grading, that’s not so different from assuming that students already know the “hidden curriculum.”
Instructors must intentionally work to build student trust. Especially, instructors must clearly explain their system and their reasons for using it, in terms of the benefits for students and the instructor’s beliefs about learning. Instructors must work to identify hidden assumptions that drive their policies and which may demotivate students (such as late-work policies that are based more on compliance than learning). Without this, many of the motivational benefits of alternative grading will be blunted.
Next week: Bias-resistance, and some tricky points
If you’ve read Grading for Equity, you’ll notice that I haven’t yet addressed one of Feldman’s three elements that most directly addresses equity: Bias-resistance. I have so much to say about bias-resistance in alternative grading that I’ll have a whole post about it next week. I’ll dig into some thorny issues like using (only?!) summative assessments, and how what we even choose to assess can be inequitable. Stay tuned!
Please leave a comment and let me know what you think about the arguments in this post!
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Feldman, J. (2018). Grading for equity: What it is, why it matters, and how it can transform schools and classrooms. Corwin Press.