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Student Achievement Opinion

Does ‘Grading for Equity’ Result in Lower Standards?

Critics misunderstand the concept, argues one advocate of the practice
By Rick Hess — April 29, 2024 11 min read
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Adam Tyner and Meredith Coffey, analysts at the Fordham Institute in Washington, recently penned a report asking: “Does ‘equitable’ grading benefit students?” They surveyed the evidence on a number of grading practices, especially more lenient practices that gained purchase during and after the COVID pandemic, and concluded that “the push for more ‘equitable’ grading policies has exacerbated grade inflation and proffered little evidence of greater learning.” Since veteran educator Joe Feldman (the author of Grading for Equity) and I have been engaged in a running back and forth about these issues, I was interested in his take on their findings. Here’s what he had to say.

—Rick

Rick: Hey Joe, eager to continue our conversation about grading. It’s a crucial subject but also one that quickly gets into the weeds, which can lead to a lot of confusion. So, let’s start by trying to ensure we’re not talking past each other. In their recent report, Tyner and Coffey place pass/fail options, abolishing penalties for late work and cheating, and waiving standard graduation requirements under the aegis of “equitable grading.” They describe these as measures that involve “lowering standards through lenient grading policies.” I’m curious what you think of that characterization.

Joe: I wasn’t surprised that the authors had the same sorts of misunderstandings about equitable grading that educators and parents often have. What did surprise me was that the authors didn’t offer any evidence that the practices they critique—including pass/fail options, abolishing penalties for late work, and cheating/plagiarism—are, in fact, elements of equitable grading. They’re not.

I’ve been very clear in both my book and articles I’ve written that equitable grading does not endorse pass/fail options. Equitable grading does not waive standard graduation requirements. And equitable grading does not abolish consequences for late work or cheating. In fact, I make the case for consequences that teach students the importance of meeting deadlines and of not plagiarizing. But I also stress that those consequences should exist independent of students’ grades.

The authors’ logic hinges on a ladder of mistaken inferences: They start with the accurate statement that rising GPAs aren’t tracking with static standardized-test scores, which is indeed a problematic trend. Then, they subjectively call certain practices “lenient” and suggest, without evidence, that those specific practices are causing grade inflation. And on top of that, they erroneously classify those specific “lenient” grading practices as elements of equitable grading, also without any evidence.

Ironically, the authors endorse two practices that are elements of equitable grading: removing extra credit and using standards-aligned rubrics.

Rick: We’ve previously discussed the concern that “grading for equity” may lead well-meaning educators to lower standards or tolerate problematic behaviors, even if that’s not actually the point. Given that, I’m curious about your response to a couple of the points Tyner and Coffey make.

Pointing to studies by Seth Gershenson and Phillip Babcock, they argue that increased leniency reduces academic achievement. For instance, they cite a 2010 paper by Babcock that found college students spent about half the time studying in classes where they expected an A as compared with those in which they expected a C. And they cite a 2023 working paper that shows that more lenient grading in North Carolina schools increased GPAs without raising student achievement and while boosting absences.

Given that you’re more familiar with the work in this field than I am, I’m interested in what you make of these studies.

Joe: Both studies reach a similar conclusion that we’ve known from decades of research: Students will rise to high expectations and sink to low expectations. The Babcock study shows that if students expect an A to be the average grade, they’ll not spend as much time working to succeed, and the North Carolina study found that if you lower the cutoff scores on the 0–100 percent scale—changing the range of an A from 93–100 to 90–100 and so forth—students will have higher grades for lower achievement. These findings both make sense.

But besides leading to absurd applications like, “Let’s make the average grade an F so students will work the hardest” or, “Let’s make 99 percent the cutoff score for an A so students will work the hardest,” neither study has anything to do with equitable grading, which simply requires grades to be accurate, bias-resistant, and motivational. And equitable grading actually raises expectations.

Equitable grading is grounded in the belief that a grade should reflect what a student knows—not how they behaved, not how many attempts it took them to get the right answer, and not whether they did an extra credit assignment. To include those extraneous factors distorts grades from communicating what students actually know.

What is particularly interesting is that we had previously published and offered data to Tyner and Coffey’s organization that they chose not to review—data that show that teachers who use equitable grading practices assign grades that are closer to students’ scores on standardized tests. Our data are clear: Equitable grading practices can, and often do, reduce grade inflation.

Importantly, our data also show that equitable grading reduces grade deflation. We may be uncomfortable with students receiving inflated grades, which sets them up for opportunities that they may not be prepared for. But it is deflated grades—when a student’s academic grade is lower than their understanding of the course content—that we should be more concerned with. Those students have demonstrated competence in the academic content of a course, but because of nonacademic behaviors that have nothing to do with their learning, they are overlooked or disqualified from opportunities that they are prepared for. We’ve seen how equitable grading shrinks the gap between grades and standardized-test scores in both directions: It decreases both grade inflation and grade deflation.

Rick: Tyner and Coffey argue that disadvantaged students “disproportionately rely on schools for motivation and credentials that can distinguish them academically,” since more-affluent students are more likely to enroll in Advanced Placement courses or pursue resume-boosting extracurricular activities. They also suggest that more advantaged students tend to benefit from higher parental expectations, which is why it’s especially important for schools to insist on high expectations for students without those advantages. What do you make of this argument?

Joe: I certainly disagree with their suggestion, based on no evidence, that disadvantaged students’ parents have lower expectations for them or hold them less accountable than more-resourced parents or that students from disadvantaged circumstances depend on schools to motivate them more than higher-resourced students do. That said, I agree that schools and educators must maintain high expectations for all students, particularly those with fewer resources or supports outside the classroom and those who have historically been subjected to lower expectations.

The problem is that our inherited grading practices undermine high expectations and make it harder for students with fewer resources to succeed.

For example, many teachers continue to award students points for getting the right answers on practice assignments, completing extra credit tasks like bringing in supplies for the classroom, and having a parent sign the syllabus. Those tasks have nothing to do with what students know and can do; in other words, they are the inverse of rigorous. Not only does it reward students who have more advantages, it makes it harder and less motivating for students when their grade reflects circumstances outside their control and not purely their learning.

Equitable grading counteracts these disadvantages by having educators focus entirely on the accurate description of a students’ understanding of course content and creating grading and assessment structures that motivate and give opportunities to all students fairly.

Rick: Tyner and Coffey take note of last year’s decision by the Boston public schools to grade behavior and effort separately from academic mastery. Tyner and Coffey describe the shift as “misguided,” arguing that “online grade books already present students’ scores within different categories” and allow parents to see the results. In light of our previous exchanges, Boston’s grading reform strikes me as the kind of approach that you’d encourage. But I’m curious to hear your thoughts and the impact of today’s grade book technology.

Joe: I think that too often we confuse being detailed with being useful. Even if software displays grading categories, like “tests” and “participation,” it doesn’t solve the most important failing of traditional grading: The grade that is ultimately reported collapses all those categories together.

The result is that a student who doesn’t understand the content very well receives a C in the “tests” category but gets an A in “participation” because they are always punctual; this could yield an overall B grade. That’s the same as the student who excels in understanding course content and receives an A in “tests” but comes late every day and gets a C in “participation.” As long as two students who have completely different academic profiles receive the same grade, then we can’t trust the grade to tell us a student’s strengths and needs. Plus, it misleads the student.

If I show up on time every day to prepare for a track meet, it doesn’t mean that I’m a faster runner. If I miss practice, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m slower. If we care about punctuality, let’s measure and give feedback on punctuality. If we care about speed, let’s measure and report speed.

The same applies to schooling. We can’t combine different types of performance and expect the grade to communicate anything meaningful. Equitable grading demands that we be clear about what we are grading and that we measure and report on it accurately.

Rick: Finally, Tyner and Coffey make the point that the real world of work is generally less forgiving than the world of education. They note, for instance, that showing up late for a job or failing to do what’s expected isn’t going to fly. I’ve been asked about this tension a number of times since we started our exchanges. Questions are usually along the lines of “How do these ‘equitable’ grading practices prepare students for a results-oriented world?”

Joe: I prefer to use the term “professional world” instead of “real world” because suggesting that the world of our students and our schools isn’t “real” delegitimizes both the real challenges our young people face and the professional workplace of teachers whose “offices” are inside school buildings.

Equitable grading actually better reflects the professional workplace than traditional grading does. If you write a draft of a legal brief or consulting report that’s not good enough, you get feedback and resubmit it. When employees are evaluated, their compensation reflects not an average of their performance since they were hired but their current level of competence. For students, we should provide retakes when they haven’t yet met the standard, and the grade should describe their content understanding at the end of their learning—not an average of their performance.

Another example: lateness. Teachers will subtract points if you’re late to class. If you’re a teacher and are late to a staff meeting, does your school or district subtract $5 from your paycheck? Of course not. They focus on improving your performance: They have conversations with you, they create improvement plans if your lateness is persistent, and if your lateness materially reduces your job effectiveness and previous consequences were unsuccessful, then they impose larger consequences. And if you’re chronically late but also an incredibly effective teacher who dramatically improves student learning or a sales rep who generates massive revenue for your business, your employer differentiates between outcomes and behaviors and works to shore up your weaknesses and build on your strengths.

That’s how we should treat the lateness of students—not by subtracting 5 points from a grade intended to measure and report math or English outcomes but by creating consequences and supports to address the issue. I’ll grant that in some low-skilled jobs, you can have your pay reduced or even lose your job if you’re late, but I think we all want to prepare students for the highest professional job environments rather than for the lowest-skilled jobs. That means we’re evaluating them not for compliance behaviors but on critical thinking, deep understanding, and self-regulation. We do that through demanding curriculum and instruction as well as more rigorous, equitable grading.

I get why the “real world” critique is appealing from a rhetorical standpoint, but when we explore the complexities of the professional world, equitable grading practices match that world much more realistically—and can help students better internalize the habits that are expected there—than the artificiality and extrinsic behavior controls of traditional grading.

Rick: Thanks again, Joe, for the lively and productive conversation. Looking forward to continuing it in the future.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.

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