Toward Fairness and Equity: Labor-Based Grading During and After COVID-19

eoq_jwiwaaar5uxIn “Our Pandemic Summer,” a recent article in The Atlantic, Ed Yong argues that framing the future in terms of “going back to normal” is a wasted opportunity to think about what a fairer and more equitable world might look like going forward.  There have been so many changes in a relatively short amount of time in education that imagining simply returning to the status quo—which was deeply inequitable and unfair—seems as untenable as ever.  One of the most substantive changes in many districts is changing the way grades are given—some districts have even removed grades entirely in favor of a credit-no-credit model—and it feels disingenuous at best and immensely damaging at worst to return to systems of ranking and sorting that have created incredible tension, anxiety, and disparity.  Grading is a space where we, collectively, need to reimagine a different future, and returning to “normal” undermines the commitments to equity that should be at the center of our work.

My district has essentially moved to a labor-based grading model for students, where learning and judgments about quality, which are always-already biased because of their roots in single standards, have been separated.  This separation, which radical for some, is a welcome relief to others, including many students.   Students earn credit when they complete 10 of 18 assignments, permitting students to make some choices and allowing for grace in the midst of a pandemic where tens of thousands of people in Michigan are sick.  If a labor-based grading system is what’s best in terms of equity and fairness for students now, it’s also best for students when they return to brick-and-mortar classrooms in the future.

In our English department this year, we reflected frequently this year about the inclusivity of our spaces, and one of the most crucial realizations that emerged was that most of the writing that was presented to students as “good” was rooted in dominant culture notions of what that means.  This couldn’t help but have an effect on who sees themselves as a writer and what counts as “good” writing during grading and evaluation.  I’ve previously talked about the ways grading is rooted in whiteness here.  One of my colleagues, who I discussed in a previous post, used this year to experiment with a new grading system as a result of some of our reflections and our one-on-one coaching sessions, and a few others are starting to make some important shifts, too.  That said, my own shift away from traditional grading took years of fits and starts, so patience with ourselves is in order.  Working against “common sense” and engrained notions of things like “rigor” take time; there’s tons to unlearn.  Even with all of those caveats, fragility remains, but attacks on grading aren’t necessarily personal, but questions about grading do force us to consider systems in which we’re complicit in upholding somehow.  Asao Inoue reminds us, “in all schools, grades are the means of discrimination, the methods of exclusion, not inclusion, no matter what we think they might do for our students.”  One of the biggest pieces of pushback that I get when I talk about grading is how it doesn’t “prepare students for the next level,” and it’s important to remember that just because other environments are oppressive doesn’t mean we have to replicate them.  Remember: we’re imagining a different future together, not attempting to reinscript what existed already and served only a privileged few.

Rightly, much of the current emphasis has been on building relationships—Maslow before Bloom—and student wellness and safety, both mentally and physically.  While our mouths may say these things, sometimes our actions indicate that these might not be the foundations of our classroom, even if we might like them to be or think that they are.  There’s been a lot of chatter on Twitter that school is a student’s “job” and that grades are their “compensation,” and that, to me, seems like that end result overemphasizing outcomes and underemphasizing. relationships: we start to see students based on the products they produce rather than as human beings with a complex set of circumstances.  In these environments, students start to only judge themselves by the products they produce, and often devalue their really thoughtful, important work when it doesn’t reach certain graded outcomes, which, again, are rooted in center with no accounting for the margins.  Put differently, a system that rewards labor only when it meets a pre-defined outcome is going to be exclusive rather than inclusive.  It’s really important to teach students to identify, talk about, and, most of all, value their labor outside of any external validation.   The idealist in me hopes that this awakens students to start valuing their work more and that teachers help them do so.  Inoue takes an important point from Friere, which we sometimes forget: we can’t liberate our students—we’re not saviors—but we can set up structural conditions where they can liberate themselves by moving away from compliance and toward agency.

In addition to rethinking some of the ways students work and evaluate work, labor-based grading has also had other important byproducts, especially forcing teachers to think more carefully about what they assign and how they design assessments, especially when grades can’t be used as currency or, worse yet, a weapon to compel compliance.  This moment of reconsideration is important: what now?  Indeed, assignments and assessments need to be meaningful, authentic, and compassionate if we want students to complete them in the midst of a pandemic.  This means that students need to be able to make choices about what they learn, how they learn it, and the modalities in which they demonstrate their learning, and, without the daunting pressure of grades, they have expressed a certain freedom to take intellectual risks, share their own thinking rather a reheated version of a teacher’s lecture, and marry their funds of knowledge to their academic work in ways that didn’t seem possible—or weren’t deemed valuable—before.  In other words, teachers are getting a crash course in the amazing things that come from trusting their students.  Grading often interferes with the relationships we want to have with our students, and removing the barrier can help us start to rehumanize our classrooms.

We know that returning to “normal” is going to be impossible, but we might also think about what “normal” has cost us. We frequently hear talk about a “new normal” as negative, but we have the potential to reimagine parts of it as positive.

Coaching Notes: The Year of Ungrading

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A group of teachers thinking about assessment and evaluation differently at #NCTE19 in Baltimore, Maryland.

In her book Emergent Strategy, Adrienne Maree Brown urges those interested in making substantive change to start small because, often, seismic change is too unwieldy and overwhelming to be successful.  Changes that work at the micro level are more likely to work at the macro level; in other words, it’s all about scaling up rather than scaling down.  The most exciting part of coaching this year was the number of teachers that asked for help disrupting traditional grades and grading in their classes.  This enthusiasm was also palpable in my team’s NCTE presentation about using face-to-face conferencing as a replacement for assessments that make the writer ancillary: many teachers are ready for something different.  In my excitement, I went into meetings with my colleagues ready to smash the traditional system (which I’ve talked about here), but my colleagues were in a different place, wondering how they might experiment with different systems to find out what works for them and for their students.  As a coach, I had to remember Brown’s emergent strategy: small is good.  Rethinking grading, which is a core tenet of education and often a deep-seated part of our pedagogies, takes courage and time. My goal as a coach wasn’t to put the cinderblock on the gas pedal with my colleague terrified in the front seat, but, instead, to help them navigate their own course toward change at their own speed, giving them needed encouragement and support along the way.  This reminded me of another of Brown’s emergent strategies–move at the speed of trust—which is key for making change sustainable.

My colleagues made some amazing changes this year in their classrooms to push back on these dominant systems to reduce the emotional toll grades have on student mental health and well-being and to work to be less unfair and more equitable in their evaluations.

Single-Point Rubrics

One of the small-yet-significant changes made by several of my colleagues, particularly in the disciplines, is using a single-point rubric.  Single-point rubrics, especially those that are ungraded, help students focus on the skill they’re working on without tying their process to grades.  These rubrics prioritize feedback over ranking and sorting, which more traditional rubrics do with overly-restrictive categories that tend to focus on what students can do wrong rather than what they can do right.  Even as evaluators, traditional analytic rubrics cause us to look for error rather than celebrate assets.  The rubrics that we use send messages to students about what we believe about an individual assessment and school writ large, and we can change the message we’ve been sending by changing the rubrics we use.  Several of my colleagues asked themselves if their evaluation of student work aligned with their values as educators, which provides opportunity for healthy self-reflection.

One of the biggest issues I’ve heard teachers discuss with single-point rubrics is time.  Moving away from easy analytic rubrics does reduce grading efficiency, but changes almost always require additional labor, particularly as teachers and students learn how to navigate a new system.  The narrative feedback required by single-point rubrics forces us to be thoughtful and intentional about what we’re telling students about their work and how we’re telling them, which is never easy.  Despite the additional time that my colleagues are spending giving feedback, they are finding that students’ relationship to assessment is changing in a positive way. Students seem to be taking more risks, asking more questions, and seeing assessment as less transactional.  The other benefit is that, with a “bless-press” or “plus-delta” model, all feedback is actually feedforward.

Together, our next steps will be to involve students more in better understanding the “why” behind these changes and involving them more in the continued development of assessment and assessment criteria that better aligns with their needs and their goals.  We should always need to remember that students are experts on themselves and their own learning, and, as a result, should be welcomed into conversations about assessment and assessment criteria. 

Student Surveys and Feedback

A few colleagues did take up the important work of involving students in assessment and evaluation design this year.  This started with asking students to do some reflection on self-assessment on what they wanted to learn, how they wanted to learn it, and the ways in which they wanted to show their learning, which, in itself, is an awesome step.  Often, we spend time differentiating instruction only to standardize the assessment, which can be frustrating for students who want a more relevant and authentic way to display their knowledge.  This requires flexibility on the teachers’ part, as they have to be willing to cede control over large parts of the learning and assessment process to students.  Some teachers have expressed reservations about managing students who are all doing different projects and who may be at different points in their project.  While the feeling is understandable given the way we collectively imagine the classroom to be, the truth is that students were likely always in different places anyway.  Not all students learn in the same way or develop skills at the same time, no matter what we say.  This willingness to involve students in important decisions about learning and assessment marked a small-but-important step away from giving students assessments that weren’t relevant to their learning and that they weren’t ready to take.

These conversations led to other conversations about how it didn’t feel “right” to grade student-centered learning in a traditional manner.  Coaches are tasked with helping folks reach their own conclusions about their practice, and I was happy that those that I worked with were able to see the incongruence between fledgling student-centered, liberation-oriented practices and the traditional practices we have in place. We can’t truly seek liberation for ourselves and our students until we change the oppressive practices that brought us to the current reality.  Many of my colleagues took an additional step of surveying their students regularly about their teaching practices, and while vulnerable, they have learned a great deal about how to be the best teacher they can be for each of their students.

Again, these changes are small, but fractal change is a key to success: asking students what they want and need and working to create structures that make it possible is a considerable move in a liberatory direction.

Portfolio-Based Grading

One of my amazing colleagues took a huge plunge into portfolio-based grading this year, and it was really great being able to help them navigate the nuanced complexities of a new system.

One of the first significant hurdles was describing a portfolio-based grading system to students and parents, especially in an AP course where students have, most often, benefitted from traditional systems that privilege being “best,” which relies on some transactional notion of ranking and sorting.  Under this system, students would be writing more, receiving fewer grades, and self-reporting the grades they did receive after conferencing with the teacher.  For our community, we gathered research about the benefits of pushing back on traditional grading structures, generally, and portfolio-based systems, specifically.  My colleague also stressed the humanizing element of portfolio-based grading: the opportunity to talk with each student about each piece of writing multiple times, allowing them to feel valued and supported as a person and writer throughout the process.  After some nervous moments during Open House, most—if not all—parents in attendance were supportive—or at least not actively unsupportive—of the new system.

As the system was implemented, however, the teacher started to feel the crunch of time.  While portfolio-based grading with student conferences are meant to push back against efficiency, there are practical limitations on time.  In talking with the teacher, we realized that she wasn’t keeping close track of time, often letting conferences extend to 20 minutes or more.  Talking to students is legitimately the best part of our job, but my colleague had already talked to them several times during the formative stages of their writing, so such extended summative conferences weren’t needed.  We also talked about focusing the conferences—“bless-press”—rather than going line-by-line through the paper, a practice that mirrors the generally ineffective on-paper feedback that marks up everything.  Moreover, the shifting of language away from evaluation to learning is hugely positive.  Future conferences were shorter and more focused, which helped the teacher get back important minutes in their day and helped students get the high-level narrative feedback they needed to improve.

Toward the end of the term, we developed an anonymous student survey about their experience.  Student responses were overwhelmingly positive, especially around feeling the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them, but a few students had difficulty with not understanding their progress in relative terms: they wanted to know where they were in relation to their classmates, not just themselves.  These students, though few in number, reported actually having more anxiety without the competition.  School has been extremely successful in getting stakeholders to buy into its transactional metrics of success and to feel lost without them, so much so that the only way to feel safe again is to return to the overarching authority of grades. Continued work with students is necessary to help the reimagine the possibilities of school and their learning, as we can’t expect them to work through seismic shifts in their educational processes any better than we can.  It’s important to be patient and empathetic to students who are working with new systems and frameworks; as Brown reminds us, move at the speed of trust.

Stories We Tell Ourselves About Ourselves: Uncomfortable Truths About Grades + Grading for White Educators

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.

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. 

IWCA CCCC 2019

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.

Conclusion

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.

Higher Needs, a Pyramid + Feedback

In How to Reform Capitalism, Alain de Botton writes:

“Most of us are, a good deal of the time, properly at sea: burdened by complaints, unfulfilled hopes, barely formulated longings, restless, anger, and grief.”

The argument, in extended form, is that capitalism isn’t really a “mature” system because most people aren’t happy, even if they can’t really say why. de Botton attributes the unhappiness—this sort of nausea—to capitalism’s inability to attend to our social, emotional, and even existential needs.  This line of thinking isn’t necessarily new (or even particularly groundbreaking), but it is instructive when I think about conversations with students about the kinds of feedback they want and the kinds of feedback they actually receive.

While students are often criticized in teacher-centered spaces on Twitter or at educational conferences as being overly focused on quantitative outcomes, like grades, we need to consider how our own behaviors contribute to the transactional nature of our classrooms, schools, and districts.   We can think of instances where we used grades as an attempt to motivate students to complete an assignment, or worse yet, where we weaponized grades to compel compliance with a rigid set of our regulations, reinforcing the power asymmetry between teachers and students.  Amy Hasinoff, a professor at the University of Colorado-Denver, discussed her own struggle with grading: “I was using grades to get the results I wanted…I was frustrated with the feeling that my job was becoming more about explaining and enforcing rules rather than teaching and learning.”  If the conversations we have with students are centered on points, especially justifying deductions for font choices, staple placement, and, yes, even lateness, we can’t be surprised when students are unhappy with us or with school.  Here, it’s worth thinking about how many students simply do what we ask because they want to avoid interactions with the oppressive power of grades and those assigning them.  When the work is transactional and rooted in compliance, we can’t be surprised when students skip to the bottom line and avoid taking risks.

It’s important to remember that humans are biologically designed to want feedback that helps them learn and grow; we seek out high-level interactions that help us review, revise, and relearn.  In de Botton’s argument about consumer capitalism, he argues that the vague unhappiness comes from companies, brands, and advertisers only fulfilling our most basic needs—the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid—without ever attending to our higher needs.  In my conversations with teachers over the last year at school and at conferences, I’ve frequently heard some offshoot of “grades are a form of feedback!”  While this isn’t necessarily untrue, grades only meet the most basic needs of our students.  If we’re not giving our students substantive, timely feedback that they can use to review, revise, and relearn, we’re not meeting their highest needs, which can exacerbate student feelings that school is transactional, especially when grades are “noisy,” meaning they don’t solely measure mastery of a skill, they measure a host of other things, usually revolving around compliance.

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Graphic: Samira Jamali

Worse yet, when our grading and feedback practices stay at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid, our students are not be developing important skills that they will need to be successful in and after our class, inside and outside of school because errors are seen as areas of deficiency rather than areas for improvement.  As P.L. Thomas shares:

“I struggle to break through students resisting the drafting, feedback, revision process because they have been taught to submit instantly perfect work; that their identifiable flaws are the loss of points—not necessarily areas to learn, grow, and excel.”

If school revolves around grades and grades are centered in the student psyche as reinforcing deficit-oriented thinking, we can’t be surprised when there’s disengagement and avoidance.  As much as we’re programmed to seek out feedback, we’re also programmed to avoid pain.  This is especially true for students who our educational systems aren’t structured to support and who grades are often most weaponized against.

In How to Reform Capitalism, de Botton argues that true motivation occurs when we feel the purpose is high enough to act.  We need to keep this in mind when we ask students to engage in an activity or an assessment simply for a grade.  The purpose simply isn’t high enough, as grades can often have deleterious effects on student engagement.  Instead, I argue that helping students see assignments as real-deal learning experiences that they can use to improve their skills is a high enough purpose, especially if they know that you are an invested partner and collaborator.  Providing timely, feedback that directly addresses a student’s wants and needs and that can be immediately applied to their learning goals is an excellent way to develop working, trusting relationships with them, as is taking and applying their feedback about how to best meet their needs.  Too often, we talk about building relationships with students as something wholly separate from classroom practice, but the two have intimate links.  Indeed, rethinking and reforming feedback and grading practices is key to building schools capable of closing achievement gaps. 

Last year, I revisited student-led face-to-face grading with some of my students after moving away from it, and I had forgotten how purposeful and meaningful it felt.  While I still had in-class conferences with students throughout the writing process and many students used our school’s peer Writing Center, hearing students talk so passionately, openly, and critically about their process was a revelation, so much so that the discussions often went well beyond their scheduled time.  Students wanted feedback on their prewriting strategies, organizational tips for paper structure, and advice on developing more critical relationships with their source material.  The grade wasn’t even mentioned in a vast majority of the conversations because, in the end, the grade mattered very little—students have unlimited opportunities to revise using feedback—and because the purpose felt higher than a number in PowerSchool.

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Using any high-level feedback strategy effectively, whether its face-to-face grading or something else, requires us to gain students’ trust over time by showing them that we’re collaborators in learning willing to share power and vulnerability with them, and it also requires us to trust our students as people who want to learn and grow and can do so without the existential threats of grades and grading. 

Our students will be happier, and so will we.