This post originally appeared at iNACOL on December 19, 2016.
There are few fields where talk of equity is as ubiquitous as it is in education. For all of that, our system of education remains remarkable for its ability to continually reproduce inequitable outcomes along race, class, and gender lines. Up to now, efforts to foster equity in education can be grouped into two broad categories: reforms focused on the input of resources, or those focused on the output of achievement. While debates drag on around the input of funding and output of standardized test scores, what is focused on far less often is what happens inside the system.
Traditional grading deserves its own debate. Every day students interact with a structure of feedback that places their learning on an alphanumeric scale. At best, this feedback system is non-descriptive; at worst, it is one of the most fundamental pieces of a system that was designed to produce stratification. By its very nature, traditional alphanumeric grading aims to separate “strong” and “weak” students. Final grades are made up of an average of any number of learning tasks, attendance requirements, homework completion, and demonstration of learning on assessments. While each of these tasks may well have discrete and useful feedback, all of that information is aggregated into a non-descript label: A, B, C, D, F or 1-100. A grade of B can mean many things even within a single classroom, and so can an F. This lack of clarity grows exponentially between classrooms and more still between schools. While in some classes students are given A’s as a reward for sitting quietly, other classes demand that learning take place, and most demand a unique blend of both, none of this information is explicit in the end-of-course grade. Traditional grading fails to communicate to students what they know and don’t know, while conveying a false sense of objectivity provided by the use of numbers or letters to calibrate student performance.
Rather than providing accurate and complete feedback, grades label students as “good” or “bad” students. While every teacher knows the benefit of momentum — that knowledge builds on knowledge, and success builds on success — traditional grades halt this momentum, declaring learning on a certain task over, signaling the end of what is actually an iterative process. Imagine a student who has studied lots, worked hard, and is waiting eagerly for feedback on her most recent assessment. And then imagine she was wrong; she was unprepared (or the task was unclear, or the grading biased), and she receives a D. Her face falls; she is discouraged, maybe she folds into herself, maybe she withdraws from trying so hard again. This single label has changed her. When a child receives a low or failing grade, she internalizes the message that she is a failure, that she cannot learn. Students who experience repetitive failure are less likely to re-engage with material and eventually come to think of themselves as bad students who don’t deserve to do well. In this way, traditional grading and assessments can be traumatizing for struggling students, creating a learning identity that becomes self-fulfilling prophecy. (more…)