How do you fix an inequitable grading system? It doesn’t change at the drop of a hat, but getting staff and students to realize what grades truly represent is the real “win” for everyone. Here’s how one school did it.

Addressing the Biases Behind Grading

Jesicah Rolapp was excited to become the new principal of Aspire Centennial

College Preparatory Academy, a public charter middle school in East Los Angeles. She had led her previous school for seven years and was ready for a change. Rolapp was attracted to this school’s culture and commitment to equity: Nearly all students were Latino and from families below the poverty line, and teachers and staff seemed unified in having every student be successful.

However, Rolapp quickly realized that an important equity issue hadn’t yet been addressed: teachers’ variable grading policies. Despite a professional culture of collaboration around curriculum design, instructional practices, and behavior expectations, each teacher had a different—and seemingly idiosyncratic—grading practice. For example:

  • One teacher accepted no homework after the attendance bell rang. Some teachers deducted points if homework was late (the amount deducted ranged from a few points to two letter grades); another accepted work without penalty until the end of the quarter.
  • One teacher awarded points for correct answers on homework, while another gave full credit if the student showed effort to complete it, regardless of whether or not answers were correct.
  • Grading category weights varied by teacher. For example, some teachers emphasized homework, weighting those assignments at 50–60 percent of the grade, while others weighted homework at 10–20 percent.
  • Some teachers offered extra credit assignments, while others didn’t. Some teachers encouraged students to retake tests to replace earlier scores; other teachers allowed only one assessment attempt.

These different grading policies had a predictable effect: two students with identical performance in a course could get different grades from different teachers, even when the teachers used identical curriculum and their students performed similarly on the state’s standardized exam.

What particularly concerned Rolapp was that some teachers graded students on nonacademic achievement—whether essays were typed or had the proper heading—or for things like “effort,” “participation,” or “citizenship,” which seemed susceptible to teachers’ implicit biases.

This inconsistent and inequitable grading wasn’t new to Rolapp, and it’s familiar to nearly every principal: Teachers grade differently and often include nonacademic criteria that can be infused with biases.

When this happens, grades become so confusing and variable that it weakens their meaning and validity: Does a student’s B reflect strong content knowledge but late assignments, or does the B represent a student’s weak content knowledge but admirable effort? If a student in one teacher’s class earns a B, what confidence is there that the B in that class has the same meaning as in another class? And if grades don’t have consistent meaning, what are the implications for grade-based decisions that schools make about students: eligibility for after-school sports and tutoring, or placement in advanced academic tracks and retention?

Getting Teachers to Understand

Principals know that variable and inequitable grading is a problem, but most have been unsuccessful at solving it. At Rolapp’s previous school, when she broached the subject of grading practices, her teachers—who otherwise were excited to explore new ideas—reacted defensively and became adamant in their justification for grades given.

Teachers who assigned high rates of F’s asserted that their grading reflected high standards and prepared students for the “real world,” while a teacher with low failure rates explained that he cared enough to give students retakes of tests. One teacher refused to discuss the topic, citing California’s Education Code that protects teachers from administrators’ pressure to change grades. Another confessed through tears that she had never received training or support for how to grade and feared she was grading students unfairly. Schoolwide conversations about grading aren’t like conversations about classroom management or curriculum implementation. Discussions about grading tap into the deepest sense of teachers’ professional identities and their fundamental beliefs about students.

Rolapp knew that she had to approach grading improvement very differently than other initiatives. First, she recognized that she was no expert in the research on improved grading. She knew that if she led the discussion of alternate grading practices, her teachers would be skeptical of her motives and more self-conscious (and less honest) participants. She partnered with Crescendo Education Group, an organization that helps teachers and schools implement improved and consistent grading practices based on the intersection of assessment, motivation, and equity research. Rolapp’s teachers learned about the mathematical flaws of the 0–100 scale, the negative impact of “points” on the motivation to learn, and how traditional grading often rewards students with privilege and punishes those without it. Rolapp supported her teachers as a “backstop” to parent questions and by protecting faculty meetings that were scheduled to discuss grading from being pre-empted with the crisis of the moment.

Teachers Share Data

Aspire Centennial College Preparatory Academy’s teachers needed to learn for themselves the benefit of more accurate, bias-resistant, motivational grading practices. Rolapp structured “action research cycles” for each teacher, where they would choose a research-supported grading practice, collect quantitative and qualitative data of the results, and share those results with colleagues. By generating a body of evidence across teachers, disciplines, and grade levels, the faculty collectively learned how to grade more accurately and equitably.

Two years and 10 action research cycles later, the school’s faculty committed, unanimously, to the following grading policies:

  • All assignments, assessments, and final grades use the 0–4 scale.
  • No extra credit is available or awarded.
  • Student grades are not affected if work is submitted late. We use other consequences and supports.
  • Retakes are available to any student(s) when they have received support and demonstrated that they have a stronger understanding. Those grades replace earlier scores.
  • Summative assessments are weighted between 90 and 100 percent of a student’s grade.
  • All nonacademic, or “soft skills” performance (timeliness of work, effort, citizenship, etc.) is not included in the grade. Instead, students are given feedback verbally, with written notes, or through online feedback software that both students and caregivers can access.

Striving for Success

These changes haven’t just improved grading; they have transformed Aspire Centennial College Preparatory Academy, affecting everything from curriculum development and assessment design to parent-teacher grade conferences and gradebook configuration. Teachers now recognize that traditional grading practices not only penalize students for behaviors that are irrelevant to academic performance and interpreted through teachers’ biased judgments, but those same dynamics inflate grades as well. No longer are students with weak content knowledge passing courses because they earned points for being punctual or “nice,” a practice that misled teachers, parents, and even the students.

More importantly, more accurate and equitable grading practices have made teachers more effective. “Teachers can actually use students’ grades to make informed decisions about instruction,” Rolapp says. “You can’t differentiate when you have a lot of behavior points, extra credit, and other ‘fluff’ in the gradebooks and all you’re really doing is differentiating for the compliant and the noncompliant child instead of seeing which child has mastered the standard and which one hasn’t.”

Not only have the school’s failure rates decreased, but there is less grade inflation because of less “fluff” in the grades. California’s standardized tests have validated the school’s work; scores have increased at higher rates than the state average. “There are a lot of pieces behind test scores going up, but a huge chunk of it is the changes to our grading,” Rolapp says.

This initiative also changed teachers’ beliefs about students and what motivates them. Teachers feared that the new grading practices would decrease student motivation. However, when students understood that grades were based on their knowledge and skills, not their behaviors, they developed intrinsic motivation and self-regulation. For example, students now understand homework is not to be completed because the teacher will award or subtract points, but is instead valuable “practice” to prepare for higher performance on the summative assessment. Rates of homework completion are actually higher than when homework points were included in the grade.

There are lots of reasons why those of us in school leadership often avoid the complexities of grading. We feel that if we challenge traditional grading, even if it is inequitable, we won’t have the energy, the time, or the support to follow through. It’s always easier to keep the way things are, even when we know that with that acceptance we tacitly perpetuate an unacceptable status quo. Yet, if we are truly committed to equity, we must bring more equitable and consistent grading to every classroom.

Joe Feldman is CEO of Crescendo Education Group in Oakland, CA, and a former principal.