Would equitable grading have made a difference for this student? I think so. Naturally, it depends on how the school uses equitable grading.
What Is Equitable Grading?
There are as many theories on equitable grading as there are people to write comments about the practice. Yet, for us, I will define equitable grading to be mastery of the material being taught. That means that the grade being given on the report card from school does not include attendance, class participation, or homework. Equitable grading does not use all sorts of fancy grading scales. To me, equitable grading means that the grade reflects what the student has learned, not how well they cooperated or behaved in class. Yes, I know that behavior and cooperation are important. Trust me, I work with at-risk students who do not always walk in the door displaying their best behavior. If you are a teacher or counselor, classroom behavior is always a concern.
Behavior and cooperation grades, if desired, should be totally separate from academic grades. Yes, I know that teachers need classroom cooperation and appropriate behavior, but the grading system that we are presently using is not working.
Why Would Equitable Grading Help Us Overcome Learning Losses?
If the grades sent home on a report card actually reflected how well the student has learned the material being taught during that grading period, then parents and teachers alike would better understand what the student has and has not learned.
Parents often come to my reading clinic and tell me that they do not understand why the teacher says their child cannot read. As they say, “He brought home a B on his report card.”
If the report card grade includes behavior, attendance, and homework, a well-behaved child can easily bring home a B on their report card and still not be able to read. Yes, I’ve seen it many times.
For more about learning losses in reading, see:
Reading Wars are Over! Phonics Failed. Whole Language Failed. Balanced Literacy Failed. Who Won? It Certainly Wasn’t the Students
Do Report Card Grades Reflect How Much Students Have Learned?
No, in general, I do not think that our grading system shows how much the student has actually learned. When we talk about learning losses from COVID or even before COVID, we must actually be measuring true improvement.
If the school is adding points for homework turned in correctly or even incorrectly, then you do not have an equitable grading system. Yes, some schools give points to students who turn in their homework even if it has the wrong answers. These homework points are then added into the overall grade listed on the report card.
If your report card grades add points for classroom participation or cooperation, then you do not have an equitable grading system. As Jennifer Gunn said in an article for Resilient Educator, you cannot measure everything with one grade:
“The truth is, grades cannot represent everything. They can’t encompass a student’s behavior, ability to meet deadlines, mastery of content and skills, participation, effort, professionalism, attendance, punctuality, neatness, and likeability… inconsistent grading practices and the ways they can inadvertently perpetuate achievement and opportunity gaps among our students make grading an issue of equity. There are grading practices that are more bias-resistant and motivational that can improve learning, minimize grade inflation, reduce failure rates, and create stronger teacher-student relationships and more caring classrooms.”
I totally agree that “grades cannot represent everything.” If we are ever to overcome the learning losses from the pandemic and before, we must have a separate academic grade based on what the student has learned.
Are Schools Changing Their Grading Policies After COVID?
Some schools have made changes to their grading policies. Unfortunately, it is uncertain whether these changes have helped or hurt. There is no uniform policy change, and no one is checking to make sure that the changes that are being made have actually helped the students overcome learning losses. As one report explains:
“To curb an alarming rise in failing students at the height of the pandemic, school districts around the U.S. showed leniency in accepting late work and assigning grades.
As the coronavirus crisis subsides, some are sticking with it or adopting similar approaches — not because of the pandemic, but often because of what it revealed about how students are penalized for hardships like a lack of support at home, work obligations or poor internet access.”
Are lenient policies the answer to correcting learning losses? I do not think so. Leniency has its place, but we still need to measure exactly what the student is or is not learning. At my reading clinic, I give students all the time they need to learn a concept or complete a project, but I never reduce the standards or the reading skills that they must learn.
Homework Does Not Reflect Equitable Grading.
As for adding in points for completing homework, we need to remember that it has been proven that homework does not teach and does not always translate into better learning. I’ll have more to say about homework later. For now, I will just say that we need to separate homework from the grade that is recorded on the report card, especially since homework has been shown through research not to be effective in helping students learn.
For more details and research on homework, I encourage you to read The Battle Over Homework by Harris Cooper. If you cannot find it at your public library, it’s available for $3.98 from Better World Books.
Must We Rely on Grades?
Let me first explain, that I do not give grades in any of my programs, but I do test to make sure students are actually learning. Regardless of whether it is with my one-on-one tutoring with vowel clustering, my weeklong Camp Sharigan program, or my year long after-school Reading Orienteering Club program, all of my programs test. I pretest before students enter my program so I can tell where a student needs help. I use a midpoint test to measure progress and determine who needs extra help. The mid-point test also tells me if a student is not improving. If a student is not showing improvement at mid-point, I immediately change my teaching approach with that student until I find a way to help that student. My post-test at the end of the year tells me the grade level that the student is able to read at after instruction. I test reading level, spelling, and comprehension.
Although testing is essential, testing must absolutely reflect what the student has learned. If you do not test, you cannot prove that the student has actually learned anything. I do not use such things as pop quizzes or unit tests. Parents frequently tell me how much their child’s grades have improved at school. I’m pleased, but I still rely on a pre-, midpoint, and post-test to tell me exactly how much the student has learned in my program.
Since my goal is to send students back to the classroom able to succeed in class, I need to make sure that they have actually learned the skills that I'm teaching. It takes some students longer than others. I teach to the individual needs of each student.
Behavior and cooperation are separate from teaching and learning. Yes, I frequently must deal with after-school behaviors and a lack of cooperation. But I do not grade or test behavior or cooperation. If you must grade behavior, I think that you should have a totally separate grade for behavior.
Hands-on teaching techniques help resolve behavior and cooperation problems. Puppets, rockets, pop-up houses, hands-on teaching techniques definitely keep students interested and engaged in the learning process.
For more about hands-on learning, see Teaching Technique #8: Hands-on Learning
Where Should We Start?
If you are a teacher or school administrator, you may be asking how can you set up an equitable grading system? If you are a parent, wanting to sit down with your child’s teacher, you may be asking, how do I discuss equitable grading with the school or with a teacher?
Some questions you might ask are:
- Does the student's grade on their report card reflect what they have learned?
- Are points added or taken away when the student is absent or does not complete an assignment?
- Is the student allowed to make up a low grade with additional learning activities? Or do they just retake the test?
- Does the report card grade reflect how well the student behaved in class or cooperated with others?
- Does the report card grade include points or grades for completed homework?
- How can the grade recorded on the report card more closely show what the student has learned and how the student has or has not improved in actually learning the concepts being taught in class?
As Sandra Burns, an elementary school principal, explains:
“Leaving out irrelevant grading factors, such as time taken or behavior concerns, will focus on the mastery level of each grade earned as opposed to outside factors that should be irrelevant to an overall grade earned.
As educators, we want the very best for all of our students. Grading assignments can at times be a challenge when we allow irrelevant criteria to weigh in on overall grades. The more we align our grading rubrics to the ultimate goal or objective of the assignment, the better equipped we’ll be to create meaningful and valid grading procedures within our classrooms.”
So, the next time you have a chance to speak at a school board meeting or to attend a parent teacher conference, don't hesitate to ask, what can be done to provide more equitable grading for our students? I really do think equitable grading will help us overcome learning losses. It's not enough all by itself, but it's a good place to begin.