Stories We Tell Ourselves: Grades, Grading + Whiteness
Discussions about disproportionality often focus on outcomes, but rarely, if ever, do we discuss the practices that lead to inequities. As a white educator who works with many other white educators, I would argue that our unwillingness to question practices lies in a fear of finding out the answers, answers which might require us to change deeply held personal beliefs and pedagogies that we have practiced and have likely benefitted us as we moved through our formal schooling. Indeed, many of the systems that have privileged us have necessarily subjugated those unlike us because we like and support, even implicitly, practices that support the cultural mythology that we’re “best.” These practices and pedagogies have become so central to our identities that changing them comes with great personal risk: interrupting the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and, importantly, the stories we tell about those unlike us that allow us to retain our perceived identities. Going from not having to think about these uncomfortable truths to having to think about them raises the potential for white fragility: we need to sit with our defensiveness, and we need to consider what about grades and grading is making us feel that way and whether those feelings are worth the costs of disproportional practice.
You can not be an impetus of radical change while remaining tethered to that which you wish to change.
— Steven Delpome (@NA_Dellsey) March 14, 2019
As a department chair, one of the challenging conversations I have with colleagues is about grading, not because grades mean anything or accurately communicate anything about student mastery of skills, line items for behavior compliance and extra credit have rendered the numbers and letters useless, but because of the stories that grades tell. Indeed, attaining good grades have become attendant with some sort of moral virtue, largely because grades are about aligning oneself, and in writing, their ideas and their voice, with the dominant culture. Many schools have difficulty honoring non-dominant literacies and valuing non-dominant funds of knowledge because they are a threat to our supremacy and the beginning of slippery slope. Powerful people fear losing the tools of their oppression. Indeed, grades help us create a system of reward and punishment designed to modify behavior toward our white, heteronormative, neurotypical beliefs and values. They help us stand guard at the gates of our space: ask yourself, for instance, who owns literacy and language in schools because of how we’ve graded and labeled reading and readers and writing and writers.
Many of our gaps in achievement and opportunity are created by our unwillingness to confront our own practices. When related to grading, this means that we need to engage some uncomfortable truths about the way most of us our currently grading.
1. Grading is for teachers, not for students.
In general, students aren’t involved in the grading process, which makes it mystifying; it’s something done to them rather than for them. Students don’t consent to what grades mean or how they’re tabulated. As teachers, then, we have all of the power, power which is easily weaponized to compel compliance with our norms: Asao B. Inoue asks us to consider the process by which we obtained our grades. If we think not just about what grades we received, but the things we had to do to receive them—perhaps bringing in Kleenex boxes (buying our way to a grade) or subjugating our own ideas and identities for agreement with an authority figure—we might not be that proud. Sebastaio Salgado argues, “we photograph with all of our ideology,” and that’s true of grading, too. For educators, grades are numerical manifestations of our beliefs and values that we project on to others, and if we’re not careful about interrogating our beliefs and values and the positionality we have to project them, we create problematic practices where we label, exclude, and limit based on congruence with our ethos. One of the stories we often tell ourselves as teachers is that we’re “fair” graders, but I would argue that, accepting the premise that fairness is the goal, it is impossible to be completely “fair” in our grading because of our implicit biases and personal assumptions, especially if we’re are in privileged subjectivities.
A good first step toward moving to “ungrading” is letting your students self-report their grades. Before you engage in this process with your students, be sure that you’ve built substantive, trusting relationships with them because while you’re giving away some of your power, your presence as an authority in the conversation looms large. There’s a tendency for students to want to please the authority figure, and there’s a tendency to steer students to the outcomes that we want: both of these need to be avoided. This is only scratching the surface, but there’s some unlearning that needs to happen on both the teacher and student sides of this equation for self-reported grades to be substantive and not merely performative. Students have to trust that self-reported grades aren’t another manipulation tactic that will end up being used against them in the long run, and we have to trust that students are not trying to put one over on us.
2. Using a single standard to grade students is deeply inequitable.
While a single standard may seem “fair,” they are actually anathema to notions of fairness. A single standard is unfair to many students, as single standards, by their very nature, are exclusive rather than inclusive, and to be “fair” means to reject systems and grading practices based on single standards. In many cases, our single standard is the product that gets produced, but there’s so much that often gets overlooked when we only focus on the end result. As Inoue writes, we can’t use a single-standard to simply define the quality of a student’s work, especially their writing, when could also look at the time and effort a student put in or the way in their process evolved. Inoue encourages us, rightly, at least in my view, to think about assessment ecologies rather than standards, and, importantly, he encourages our students to do the same, a task that’s made easier when we trust them and engage them in playing in active role in building the frameworks to which they’re beholden.
Using a single standard—only looking at the quality of the finished product—also promotes competition for students to be the “best,” as we’ve defined it, which is often through white, heteronormative, neurotypical lenses. High levels of academic competition are toxic, and there’s no reason to reproduce what standardized testing and college admissions processes have wrought in our classrooms, especially when fulfilling requirements for grades requires that students leave much of themselves behind. As my Writing Center tutor Carsten Finholt argued at the IWCA collaborative this month, every student deserves a safe entry point to literacy that values who they are and what they know, and grades based on a single standard aren’t it. A classroom graded on a single standard that pits students against one another for scores isn’t culturally responsive.
An important note: not having a single standard doesn’t mean that there are no standards. It means that instead of competing to be just like us, our students are working for themselves and their own improvement. Here, they create their own standards based on their own goals. If we don’t think students are capable of creating their own standards and their own goals based on what they need, we need to engage in some hard thinking about those believes based on our own racial and cultural perceptions of who can do what work and who can be responsible for shaping the learning environment and ecology for their own purposes.
A commitment to equity means working toward abolishing grades, even if that means that many of us may lose a source of our power and part of our privileged identities. The risks of changing our interpretive stories are far less than the risks of continuing grading for another generation of students who will be labeled and defined forever by the letters and numbers we enter in a learning management system.