On January 14, Joe Feldman, an author and the founder of Crescendo Education Group, gave the keynote at MTC’s member school meeting in Fort Worth, Texas. He shared with member school participants—some new to MTC’s work, others who have been part of this work for some time—his work on equitable grading practices. “Traditional grading practices often perpetuate achievement gaps and undermine effective teaching and learning,” said Feldman. “Because the work of improving grading and improving the high school transcript are intertwined, if we don’t re-examine the way we grade our students alongside our changes to transcripts, we won’t leverage the kinds of transformational improvements to our schools that we hope for.” Read on for insights into how improving how teachers grade and reforming the high school transcript are both critically important efforts to improving our schools.
During the recent MTC member school meeting, I began my presentation with the history of our nation’s current approaches to grading. Developed during the Industrial Revolution, the practices we commonly use to grade our students were founded on those century-old beliefs—beliefs that students have a fixed ability, that a primary purpose of schools is to sort students, and that learners are best motivated by extrinsic rewards and punishments—beliefs that have been debunked by incontrovertible research in the last several decades. And yet we continue to use grading practices based on these outdated ideas. We continue to apply the curve to student achievement even though doing so says nothing about what students actually have achieved. We include in a student’s grade so much disparate information—including behavior, academic achievement, effort, work habits, participation, etc.—that in our attempt to communicate everything about a student through a grade we communicate confusing and even misleading information. We use “points” to reward and punish students, such as subtracting five points if an assignment is late, awarding points for bringing the binder to class, and deciding grades based on the points students earn, despite research proving that extrinsic motivation decreases student achievement. Our inherited grading practices reward students with privileges and resources, and punish students without those resources: for example, we know that the students who earn credit for homework completion and extra credit assignments are those students with more resources—such as financial or home supports. Plus, when we judge students on their behaviors—such as “participation”—we do so with biased lenses that reflect our culture and backgrounds. Still these practices are common in nearly every school and every classroom.
But research also shows that when educators recognize the inequities in our current grading, we feel compelled to do things differently—not to award extra credit, not to judge a student’s “effort,” to rethink how we treat homework—and student achievement increases, grade inflation decreases, and we reduce achievement disparities. And yet it’s very hard to tackle grading. We were raised in this system, did well in this system, and have only ever experienced this system. We can’t make our schools more equitable simply by celebrating more holidays or explicitly talking about white privilege, and we can’t truly improve how students experience our schools by only introducing new curriculum or learning a new instructional strategy. We need the courage to re-imagine a hallmark of our education system—how we grade. As Arthur Jones has written, “All organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they get.” We can’t expect real changes in our students’ school experiences and any reduction of the achievement and opportunity gaps unless we tackle foundational elements of our system.
And that’s the heart of the connection between making grading more equitable and MTC’s work. The high school transcript is just as foundational to our schools as grading—transcripts, and the grades on those transcripts, are the formalized summary of a student’s high school academic career in our schools, and relied upon by every institution outside the school. Like the way we grade, our inherited transcript design is something rarely questioned, rarely subject to examination. And yet we know that the traditional transcript is an artifact of our schools that has not kept pace with what we know about the complexity and diversity of our students; it reflects and helps to maintain the obsolete concept of seat-time and course title as a measure of rigor.
If we are committed to equity and making our schools places where outcomes can’t be predicted by a student’s zip code, family income, race, gender, or first language, we must subject both the transcript and grading practices to critical scrutiny. We must re-imagine transcripts and grading, and engage caregivers, post-secondary institutions, and students in this re-imagining. These mainstays of our schools need to reflect our contemporary understanding of students and effective pedagogy. With more equitable grading practices and a transcript that reflects student competencies on 21st-century content and skills, we can create schools we know are possible, where every student can succeed.