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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Three Ways School Leaders Can Undo Grading Inequities

By Eric Saibel — May 26, 2019 8 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Eric Saibel, a 21-year public educator and principal of Hall Middle School in Northern California, a 2019 California “School to Watch.”

Public education has charted an exciting trajectory over the last 20 years. 1996 saw the publication of “Breaking Ranks: Changing an American Institution,” which laid out a model for school transformation based on collaborative leadership, personalizing the school environment, and curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices to enhance student engagement and learning.

Since then, we have seen states and districts engage in the deliberate work of transforming their schools by prioritizing social-emotional learning; implementing more culturally representative curricula; developing inquiry-based, cross-disciplinary pedagogies; and transforming inequitable disciplinary practices through restorative justice. Additionally, the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, begun in 1999, established a holistic rubric that evaluates schools (and requires schools to evaluate themselves) based on their demonstration of academic excellence, developmentally responsive practices, and social equity.

Despite all this progress to chart education’s future as a launch pad for an equitable and innovative society, we still see remnants of 19th-century practices in our day-to-day work in secondary settings: namely, A-F grading on the 100-point scale. The first official use of A-F grading occurred in 1897 at Mount Holyoke College, and high schools (and most middle schools) have followed suit ever since.

While there is logic to having a consistent scoring system between secondary schools and higher education, there is a growing understanding that A-F is a profoundly arbitrary and subjective ranking system. In fact, grade inflation has gone unchecked for decades, watering down the notion that A means “excellent.” As William Deresiewicz notes in his book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite, “In 1940, 15 percent of the grades (at private colleges/universities) fell within the A range; in 2008, the number was almost 45 percent.”

Research on the adverse effects of points-based grading was already gathering dust when I started teaching in 1998. In 2011, Tom Guskey shared the work from Selby and Murphy dating to 1992:

”...[N]o research supports the idea that low grades prompt students to try harder. More often, low grades prompt students to withdraw from learning. To protect their self-images, many students regard the low grade as irrelevant or meaningless. Others may blame themselves for the low grade but feel helpless to improve.”

There is a profound disconnect in between a model that has students see learning as a transactional process of gathering points with an educational culture that is increasingly emphasizing life habits and skills—e.g., agency, communication, collaboration, creativity—alongside (not lesser than) content-specific knowledge. Adam Grant wrote a compelling Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, “What Straight-A Students Get Wrong,” where he shares:

The evidence is clear: Academic excellence is not a strong predictor of career excellence. Across industries, research shows that the correlation between grades and job performance is modest in the first year after college and trivial within a handful of years. ... Academic grades rarely assess qualities like creativity, leadership and teamwork skills, or social, emotional, and political intelligence ... career success is rarely about finding the right solution to a problem—it's more about finding the right problem to solve."

So how can we start to chart a new course in secondary schools? Much of the conversation around the pervasiveness of A-F centers on teachers in their individual classrooms. I propose we stop focusing on (and blaming) individual teachers and bring our attention to the critical role that site and district leaders play in moving forward necessary changes in grading practices at scale. These leaders can do three things right away to begin the shift toward grading and feedback models that:

  • Are cohesive across schools and districts;
  • Provide nuanced information on specific academic and behavioral standards; and
  • Implicate students in the evaluation of their own learning.

Implement a “Habits of Learning” rubric
These are the life skills that we know are more critical to student success than any one academic discipline. Oftentimes, a school may offer cursory feedback on a nonacademic skill in the report card (such as “Citizenship”); however there is a tremendous opportunity for schools to provide feedback on a range of habits, skills, and mindsets that we know are keys to success in a rapidly evolving global society.

Additionally, an articulated skills rubric around these life skills offers students the opportunity to evaluate themselves and their peers rather than simply “getting a grade.” Fortunately, there are many models to learn from, including the New Tech Network Learning Outcomes, the ISTE Student Standards, and the Habits of Learning continuum we created at my school, Hall Middle; we will begin providing feedback on these skills on our report cards in the fall of 2019.

Separate homework and behavior from the academic grade
Homework is the epitome of inequity; along with other meritocratic grading practices, it can also contribute to a greater sense of alienation (Mau, 1989). First off, with six to seven teachers, students come home with a hodge-podge of assignments; some days very little, other days an overwhelming amount.

  • And what is the student’s home situation?
  • Is there a parent, guardian, or tutor waiting to help them?
  • Is the parent at work, and the student has to take care of younger siblings?

To recognize that we’re awarding more points to the former is the first step in dismantling the backwards notion that assigning points to homework is “motivating.” All it motivates is a culture of “do it by any means necessary,” including copying/cheating. In a culture centered on proficiency (not most points), a student will show they know the material through a diverse array of assessments. Teachers should by all means offer resources for students to study outside of school—but tethering that to earning points needs to end.

One of the problematic aspects of A-F grading is how all points, regardless of where they come from, get blended together to produce one percentage. Conflating behaviors with academic grades is a fundamental flaw; it masks a student’s proficiency in the subject matter and serves as a tool for compliance (“Behave as I expect, or else”).

Ken O’Connor’s excellent “A Repair Kit for Grading” exposes the flawed logic in lumping behavior into the academic grade: “Teachers combine achievement and other variables, such as behavior, into grades for several reasons. One is the belief that this practice appropriately rewards students who are well behaved and punishes those who do not behave as expected. When thus combined, grades become extrinsic motivators to control student behavior.” (p. 17).

This is why the A has lost all meaning when it comes to proficiency in the given discipline—too many other variables are introduced. I’ve lost track of the number of times a parent will complain that their child is below standard on local assessments and standardized testing, but has A’s and B’s in class. But those that understand how points-based systems work understand this schism perfectly: Grades aren’t about proficiency. Separating homework and behavior out of the letter grade will help give students, parents, and future teachers an accurate view of the student’s actual content knowledge.

Give standards-based grades, then convert to letter grades
Common Core is a decade old, and many students are already receiving feedback on learning through proficiency scales and rubrics specific to individual standards. While high schools are obliged to offer grades for the sake of higher education’s admissions practices, they can implement standards-based feedback to then convert to letter grades for the sake of the report card. While it is preferable for an entire teaching staff to undergo efforts like these together, the reality is that A-F grading is a hard habit to break. Leaders need to channel an adaptive mindset in these instances and empower smaller teams to form the vanguard for change. At Sir Francis Drake High School in California (where I served as assistant principal until 2014), there is a multidisciplinary group of teachers called The Learning Collaborative that is entering its third year of providing standards-based feedback, which is then converted to letter grades.

This might seem to be a newfangled, “experimental” approach, but the California Department of Education’s 2001 publication “Taking Center Stage: A Commitment to Standards-Based Education for California’s Middle Grades Students” asserts: “Unlike traditional classroom grades ... performance standards are specifically aligned to grade-level content standards and do not include subjective factors such as classroom values, weighting, curved scores, effort, behavior, promptness on assignments, and special accommodations. It may be tempting to try to equate grades with performance standards, but it would be inadvisable to do so.” (p. 32) Eighteen years and a generation of students later, it is leadership’s imperative to take action.

One thing of note: Sir Francis Drake High was one of the schools featured in the aforementioned book, “Breaking Ranks,” for its work to create interdisciplinary Small Learning Communities (a practice not embraced by all faculty at its inception). Drake was a school in decline through the 80’s—losing enrollment and community confidence. Who was it that made the decision to create collaborative teacher teams centered on problem-based learning and launch Drake High on a trajectory to national recognition—including appearing on the cover of US News and World Report in 2000? District leadership.

School leaders need to take the onus off individual teachers and take concrete action steps to transform the culture of feedback on learning across their organizations. Rather than leave it to individual teachers to maybe, possibly create cohesion in practice, leaders must take a clear stance on the need for change, then empower all stakeholder groups to create and implement solutions in line with the demands of the 21st—not 19th—century.

Eric Saibel is principal of Hall Middle School in Larkspur, Calif.; formerly, he was a high school Spanish teacher and assistant principal. He is a co-founder of Global School Play Day, which saw over a half-million children participate worldwide this past February. You can find more of his writings about the intersection of adaptive leadership, professional learning, and creativity on his blog and Edutopia.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.