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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

An 'incomplete' for 'equity grading'

What does an "A" mean? Does "C-" signify "almost satisfactory" or "learned very little but got some extra credit points?"

The push to reform grading got new life from the pandemic, writes Patricia Alex on Education Next. Students are doing less work and missing more school. Educators want to focus on how much students learned -- "mastery" -- rather than whether they turned in assignments on time. Or at all.

Earlier grading reforms, such as teachers evaluating portfolios of student work, fizzled, writes Alex. They were "viewed as too cumbersome to scale up."

The hot new model is billed as "equitable grading," based on Joe Feldman's Grading for Equity, writes Alex.

Teachers base grades on a student’s end-of-course command of material, without consideration of attendant factors such as homework, extra credit, or “soft-skill” behaviors such as punctuality, attendance, handing in assignments on time, and class participation. Learners are afforded extra time and can retake tests or other assessments to demonstrate mastery or raise a grade.

"You can’t get an A jumping through hoops, so it reduces grade inflation, makes it more rigorous," says Feldman, a former teacher and administrator.

In two districts that tried his method, "the number of Ds and Fs declined, as did the number of As," Feldman reports. Racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps narrowed.

Teachers aren't sold on the idea, writes Alex. They fear is will increase their workload as students will need to retest, and lower "expectations, rigor and accountability."

At Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia, teachers argued in a letter to the superintendent and school board that remote learning "illustrated that more students ignore homework assignments if they aren’t being graded on them."

They also contended that there are skills that are more important than content mastery for students to learn, such as “the habits of mind (acquiring and synthesizing information) and work habits (timely attendance, work completion, positive participation in group activities) [that] make for successful careers.”

Placer Union, a California district near Sacramento, bases grades on end-of-term tests, projects and presentations, writes Alex. "Students can retake assessments until they show mastery of the subject, even if it means going beyond the semester into so-called intervention periods."

“The football team could lose its first two games but still win the championship," says Jeffrey Tooker, deputy superintendent. "It’s about growth, and each game is a formative assessment.”

But it's a small district, Alex notes. Grading reforms in Los Angeles and San Diego have made little progress due to teachers' concerns.

Feldman’s model isn't the only one, she writes. Thomas R. Guskey, a University of Louisville research scholar, supports grades that separate the “Three Ps”: product (mastery), process (behaviors such as homework and class participation), and progress (improvement).

I wonder how many students will truly reach mastery if they don't keep up with assignments and participate in class. The experience with "credit recovery" suggests they'll be given the same test over and over again until they can squeak through.

I'd also feel happier if grading reforms aimed at measuring "mastery" or "competency," while encouraging good work habits. Sell it on accuracy, rather than dragging in "equity." But I'm an old dog who's tired of learning all these new tricks.

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