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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Teachers Can Implement ‘Equitable Grading’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 04, 2019 15 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are your best recommendations for how to handle grading?

Alfonso (Al) Gonzalez, Cathy Vatterott, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, and Cindy Garcia “kicked off” this series in Part One. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Al on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Joe Feldman, Julia Thompson, Madeline Whitaker Good, and Andrew Sharos share their responses.

Response From Joe Feldman

Author of Grading for Equity (Corwin, 2018), Joe Feldman has worked in education at the local and national levels for over 20 years in both charter and district school contexts, as a teacher, principal, and district administrator. Joe is currently CEO of Crescendo Education Group (crescendoedgroup.org), a consulting organization that partners with school and districts to help teachers use improved and more equitable grading and assessment practices:

Equitable grading has three elements: It accurately describes what students know, it is resistant to institutional and implicit biases and actively counteracts historical inequities, and it supports and draws upon students’ intrinsic motivation.

We want grading to be accurate—that is, for a student’s grade to reflect their level of mastery of the content—and this requires us to make several changes to the mathematics we traditionally (and commonly) use in our grading. For example, almost every teacher averages a student’s performance over time. The problem is not only that averaging is often not the most mathematically sound calculation to organize a set of numbers, but that averaging penalizes the student who struggles, who makes mistakes on their path to learning, and benefits students who have more supports or a stronger educational background. Take the student who makes mistakes on early assignments or assessments, learns from them, and then shows greater levels of understanding of that content in later assessments. When we average all of her scores, those earlier weigh down her grade, rendering a score that is inaccurately low. More concretely, if she scores a C on several assessments on a standard (homework, quizzes) and then earns an A on a later assessment of that same standard, her averaged performance might be a B grade, which inaccurately describes her level of content mastery and in effect penalizes her for her earlier mistakes.

We also want grading to be bias-resistant, and that means excluding categories of grading that invite our implicit biases—those unconscious judgments and decisions—to operate. For example, common grading categories such as “effort” or “participation” are rife with subjective judgments and are influenced by our culturally-specific lenses and assumptions. For example, when during a lecture we see a student looking at us and taking notes, we might give them points in a daily participation grade for paying attention. However, just because they are writing notes and looking at us is no guarantee that students are learning—some students learn while doodling or by not making direct eye contact with us. We may just be awarding points for those behaviors because when we look at the teacher and take notes, we are learning (or maybe we have just been rewarded for showing those behaviors regardless of whether we learn!). When we grade students on “effort” or “participation,” we evaluate them by projecting what our “effort” or our “participation” looks like, a projection which is heavily influenced by our cultures, backgrounds, and biases.

Finally, we want our grades to motivate students intrinsically. While traditional approaches to grading rely on the belief that students need the reward of points in a grade in order to be incentivized to do homework assignments or contribute in class, students are actually dependent on these external rewards because we’ve taught them to be. Research has been conclusive for decades: Intrinsic motivation is far more effective for learning, and extrinsic motivation undermines learning. Equitable grading builds intrinsic motivation, empowering students with self-regulation and ownership over their learning. For example, we can teach students that doing homework is important not because the teacher awards 10 points for completing it but because the homework is designed to help them learn—a means-end relationship that is borne out on the summative assessment. Although teachers can be skeptical that students can be motivated intrinsically, teachers have found that when they re-establish these means-ends relationships in learning through more equitable grading practices, students will do homework assignments without the promise of points.

Most of us have received no training or support with how to grade, so it’s understandable that we would simply replicate how we were graded as students. But we can reimagine grading. We can recognize how it has been a core element of a discriminatory educational system for generations and we can instead implement research-based practices that align with rather than undermine our commitment to equity that give every student a chance at success regardless of their circumstances.

Response From Julia Thompson

Julia Thompson is currently a teacher trainer for the Bureau of Research and Development. She is also the author of several books for teachers including The First-Year Teacher’s Survival Guide, Fourth Edition. Thompson offers practical advice for teachers at her website, www.juliagthompson.com, her blog, www.juliagthompson.blogspot.com, and on Twitter, @TeacherAdvice:

Figuring out how to grade papers quickly and accurately took me several years. I found the task tedious; yet at the same time, I wanted to give my students quick feedback, so I made improving the ways that I graded papers a professional goal year after year. It took me a while to develop a workable approach, but when I did, it was life-changing. I was able to meet my goal of returning even long essays to my students within three days and I was free of the misery of spending hours either grading or feeling guilty about not grading. Here’s my advice to make it happen:

Grading Paper Copies of Assignments

  • Stagger due dates if you teach more than one class or have lots of papers coming in from various assignments. If possible, try to consider your own work schedule before setting a final due date for longer assignments such as projects and essays.

  • When you make assignments with more than one part, consider grading each part separately. For example, instead of grading all the parts of an essay at once, have students turn in their outline to be graded first. Then, you could evaluate each student’s rough draft and offer suggestions before grading the final essay. While this practice does spread an assignment over several days, the positive results and reduced stress are worth it.

  • Avoid the No-Name-Paper trap by providing students with highlighters to mark their names when they turn in papers. Once students get in the habit of highlighting their names, the No-Name-Paper issue will vanish.

  • Be prepared when you have papers to grade: Have a quiet work place, marking pens, rubrics, and answer keys ready so that you do not have to waste time getting organized.

  • Remove as many distractions as possible when you begin grading. Temporarily turn off social-media notifications and other electronic distractions. Close your classroom door or move to a quiet place to work.

  • Do not try to grade stacks and stacks of papers in one sitting. Divide the work into smaller batches and tackle these in a systematic manner. Grading in focused bursts of concentrated effort with breaks in between is an efficient way to grade quickly.

  • If you are grading at home, try to use your biological clock to grade when you are most alert.

  • Reward yourself when you have finished grading an onerous set of papers. This will encourage you to stay focused.

  • Make sure that the directions for each assignment are very clear. Explicit directions will eliminate many student errors.

  • Before students submit their assignments, ask them to trade papers and review each other’s work. A quick edit from a classmate could eliminate many of the less significant errors such as typos.

  • Create very specific checklists or rubrics that guide students as they complete assignments. This allows students to know what they must do to succeed.

  • Don’t grade everything your students produce. Some teachers find it easier to grade only part of an assignment—spot-checking for patterns of errors. Still others ask students to submit an example of their best work in a series of assignments. Formative assessments should not be graded at all.

  • It is far better to focus on a few skills in each assignment rather than on every mistake that students make. Focused grading will allow you to concentrate on what’s important and determine the areas of strength and weaknesses in student mastery.

  • Don’t cover papers with comments—one of the easiest mistakes to make. Instead, focus on a blend of positive comments and comments about what needs improvement. Limit yourself to three or four comments if possible. If you need to make more comments, consider holding a conference with the student instead.

  • Don’t focus only on the errors that your students have made. Use a highlighter to point out the parts of their assignments that they did particularly well. Students not only appreciate the kindness in this action but also learn a great deal more from your positive comments than from a sea of red ink.

  • Create a method of correcting student work that is simple for your students to understand and then use it consistently. Using the same proofreading marks on every assignment, for example, will make it easy for students to understand their mistakes. Post these marks online and on the board and make sure each student has a copy.

  • When you grade quizzes and tests, grade the same page on every quiz or test in the stack before moving on to the next page.

  • Make the answer sheets that your students use for quizzes and tests easy to grade. Allow plenty of white space and room for students to write so that you can read their responses quickly.

  • It’s often productive to review several papers before starting the grading process to get a general idea of the general strengths and weaknesses of the work. This could save you time later as you decide what you may need to reteach.

Response From Madeline Whitaker Good

Madeline Whitaker Good is a Ph.D. student studying at the University of Missouri in the Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis department. She is a former classroom teacher, having taught at both the elementary and secondary levels:

My biggest recommendation is to remember that giving students the opportunity to apply what they have been taught without being given a grade is a good thing for both your students and yourself as a teacher. Save grades for true moments where you need assessment data, such as with exit tickets, quizzes, tests, or large assignments. Other than that, do not feel like you need to grade everything because students need low-risk opportunities to practice and learn the topic. This can be done in so many ways, and some that I use in my classroom are independent work, partner work, group work (both assigned groups and chosen groups), online practice/games, and stations.

With that said, do make sure you have created ways where students receive feedback but don’t feel like that needs to be overly time-consuming, either. In my math class, students would be given an entire “grade-less” class period to practice what they learned, and they had unlimited access to the answer key. I was there to clarify any misconceptions students had and to provide reteaching opportunities when needed. This was the best way to utilize our time as a class and my personal time as a teacher.

Some teachers feel that students simply will not learn or complete work without a grade. I have had my fair share of students that have been conditioned to need a grade to feel motivated, so that is definitely a reality for some learners. But I would argue that is not the majority of students. For those who feel like they have to combat this regularly, I would recommend a few things.

  • Help students feel like they can find success in your class. If your assignments are inaccessible for racial, cultural, cognitive, or any other reasons, work to make sure you provide support or make adjustments so all can achieve in their own ways.

  • Make sure you are affirming students when they are in your class. Being a student can be scary. Period. Saying things like, “Thanks so much for taking that risk,” “Wow, what incredible problem solving,” and “I am so glad you are at school today,” can help students feel at ease and wanted.

  • As best as you can, help students feel comfortable making mistakes in your classroom. I will be the first to admit that I have not mastered this. As an 8th grade math teacher, I constantly tried to unwind the tension brought with students who felt that they were just “bad” at math. But I tried my best and constantly worked to affirm risk-takers and thank those who helped us all learn from their misconceptions.

Response From Andrew Sharos

Andrew Sharos is a former social studies teacher and current high school administrator in Chicago. He is the author of All 4s and 5s, a book about teaching and leading Advanced Placement classes. He speaks nationwide about closing achievement gaps, best practices in classroom policies, and the intersection of literacy and technology:

Never, ever bring papers home to grade. Earlier in my career, you know—the days when you are single or married with no kids—I spent a ton of time grading papers at home. I remember living a lifestyle of traveling and having fun in my 20’s, but always having a stack of papers to grade when I was on the airplane or when I was riding shotgun in the car my wife was driving. Grading never ends. But I think if we reimagine how we do this and consider what students need from graded papers we can achieve a win-win scenario.

The catalyst in changing our practice about grading really comes from students. In the focus groups I run with students, there is one consistent response they give when asked about assessment and graded papers.

Students want personal and meaningful feedback.

On the flip side, when students do receive written feedback on their work, typically they turn to the back page to see the grade they earned and do not put half as much effort into reading our notes as we do providing the notes. In essence, we are wasting our time.

So if grading has to be personal and meaningful, and our current practice is a waste of time, how can we fix it?

I believe that all grading has to be personal AND efficient. On larger assignments, students have the opportunity to sit down with me before, during, or after school to have a writing conference. The impact of personal feedback about any written work is so obvious, especially when we read our students’ work aloud with them by our side. We can give them much more impactful feedback in person than we can on paper or on a screen. The conversations always become more personal, and the feedback is a lot more meaningful. Writing conferences could extend to other assignments like labs, math problems, and any assignment that has a major impact on student learning in your class.

Most teachers cannot afford to grade many of their assignments through writing conferences, so we still have to look for ways to be efficient in grading. Some teachers grade minor assignments for effort rather than accuracy. Other teachers can take the names off the written work and have the entire class “grade” the essay or problem together to crowdsource some feedback from the larger group. Peer grading can be effective if students are given very specific things to look for. I’ve seen teachers put three essays in front of a group of students and have them pick out the A, the B, and the D grade and tell the teacher why. The point is, there are ways to give meaningful feedback without killing ourselves as teachers. I would rather work my tail off and stay at school as long as it takes to finish writing conferences than interrupt a weekend with a stack of papers. Moreover, I would rather have students receive personal attention on assignments that matter most instead of emptying my red pen on something they may not value.

Thanks to Joe, Julia, Madeline, and Andrew for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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