Some Public Schools Implementing 'Equitable Grading' to Eliminate Alleged 'Bias' in Grading

By Ben Kelley | June 6, 2022 | 11:15am EDT
(Screenshot, Chicago Tribune)
(Screenshot, Chicago Tribune)

(CNS News) -- The Oak Park and River Forest High School in Chicago reportedly will change its grading system next year to “equitable grading,” an approach that eliminates such grading factors as class participation and turning homework in on time because underprivileged students may not be able to master those skills.

According to the school’s Strategic Plan, dated May 26, 2022, the school has found that “traditional grading practices perpetuate inequities and intensify the opportunity gap.” The presentation goes on to explain that teachers have begun implementing equitable grading practices such as “eliminating zeros from the grade book” and that the school “will continue the process necessary to make grading improvements that reflect our core beliefs.”

Supporters of “equitable grading,” such as educator Ken Shelton, claim it minimizes grading biases, which are “rooted in racism, anti-Blackness, sexism, transphobia, and ableism.” Critics, however, say “equitable grading” hurts students of color and “impede[s] their success as adults” – it is “bigotry of low expectations,” remarked Wesley J. Smith, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute. 

(Screenshot)
(Screenshot)

As reported on May 30, 2022 by the West Cook News, “Oak Park and River Forest High School administrators will require teachers next school year to adjust their classroom grading scales to account for the skin color or ethnicity of its students.”

“In an effort to equalize test scores among racial groups” the school “will order its teachers to exclude from their grading assessments variables it says disproportionately hurt the grades of black students,” said West Cook News. “They can no longer be docked for missing class, misbehaving in school or failing to turn in their assignments, according to the plan.”

On May 31, following criticism of the school’s reported decision, the Oak Park and River Forest High School announced that a final decision to implement a race-based grading system had not been made.

The school said the West Cook News article contained “a variety of misleading and inaccurate statements,” and explained that before any grading changes are made they must first be “made to the Board at a public meeting.”

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

“As the OPRFHS Grading and Assessment Committee continues its work, the district is committed to keeping the community updated to any changes,” said the school in a statement.

So, although Oak Park and River Forest High School has not made a final decision, it is discussing and considering “equitable grading.” 

Equitable grading advocate Joe Feldman, author of the book Grading for Equity, describes the system as having three pillars: intrinsic motivation, accuracy, and bias-resistance. In other words, grades should not reward or punish students for turning in assignments late or completing extra credit because students should be self-motivated, exclude criteria like behavior that are not academic, and use purely objective standards in order to shield students from “implicit biases.”

Feldman also supports getting rid of the traditional 0-100 scale used in grading in favor of “mathematically sound calculations and scales” such as a 0-4 scale.

In an interview with Harvard’s education magazine Ed., Feldman argues that equitable grading is necessary because of “institutional biases that have historically rewarded students with privilege and punished those without, and [we] also must protect student grades from our own implicit biases.”

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Crescendo Education Group, an organization based in Oakland, Calif. that works with school districts to develop equitable grading policies, describes their organizational values as striving to “recognize how our students’ disparate outcomes are caused by a multitude of factors – our beliefs, experiences, and implicit biases, as well as our schools’ structures and systems.”

The group’s approach to grading excludes categories such as “effort,” “growth,” and “participation,” and encourages schools to standardize practices including grade curves, late assignments, and retaking tests.

A study of biology classes published in the National Library of Medicine, however, argues that the most effective approach to grading incorporates a balance of effort-based and academic-based grading.

According to the authors, “constructing a grading system that rewards students for participation and effort has been shown to stimulate student interest in improvement.” The study suggests that when teachers use objective rubrics and metrics, such as lateness to grade assignments for effort and participation, in addition to assignments graded for accuracy, not only are opportunities for subjectivity and bias reduced, but it incentivizes in-class participation.

Oak Park and River Forest is not the first high school to implement equitable grading policies into their curricula. This new, “equitable,” grading system has primarily been marketed across the nation to grade schools, with individual districts making a commitment to the method and training their teachers to employ it. Placer Union High School District and the San Leandro Unified School District, for example, both adopted the grading system and received positive feedback from their teachers before the COVID pandemic.

  (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The Associated Press reported in March that the equitable grading movement has been gaining momentum in U.S. schools over the past few years. “For years, advocates have advanced the concept of “equitable grading”... A growing number of schools now are becoming more deliberate about eliminating bias from grading systems as a result of lessons from the pandemic and the nation’s reckoning with racial injustice.”

The National School Boards Association (NSBA) has published a guide to equitable grading by Joe Feldman encouraging the practice by explaining that “across most schools, grades do not provide fair, objective, and accurate reflections of student academic performance” because traditional grading practices “vary from teacher to teacher;” “are often infected by implicit racial, class, and gender biases;” and “are based on mathematically unsound calculations.”

In order to combat these deficiencies, the NSBA recommends that school districts “support hope and a growth mindset,” “make grades simpler to understand and more transparent,” and “build soft skills without including them in the grade.”  The NSBA defines soft skills, sometimes called employability skills, as “having the capacity to communicate, collaborate, and problem-solve, among other [skills].”

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