Grading for Equity – Book Review

student cheating during an exam

Ideas for higher education from the book by Joe Feldman

We want our students to grow and develop in our courses, and we especially love those occasions when our students’ overcome barriers and achieve huge leaps in learning. But is it possible that our grading practices unintentionally punish students for slow starts, disruptive events, or circumstances related to their environment rather than their learning?

The popular book Grading for Equity by Joe Feldman addresses these issues from a K-12 perspective. Although not all of the strategies apply directly to the higher education environment, there are intriguing ideas to explore that can be adapted to the college classroom. 

Equitable grading through accurate, bias-resistant, and motivational practices

In the book, the author organizes ideas and suggestions for grading around three principles, suggesting that equitable grading is accurate, bias-resistant, and motivational.

Acknowledge inconsistencies in grading

By accurate, Feldman means that our grading policies should be mathematically sound, easy to understand, and correctly describe a student’s level of academic performance. Unfortunately, our grading policies differ widely in higher education. You can ask any group of faculty what it means to “earn an A” in their course and will likely receive a wide variety of responses.

To illustrate this point, this book walks through many examples showing how minor differences in grading structures can mean that similar student performance results in vastly different end-of-course grades. It highlights how practices such as grading on a curve do not accurately tell us how well each individual student has met the course outcomes. Unlike our scientific studies, we rarely pilot test our classroom assessments or mathematically analyze our grading structures.

To begin to practice equitable grading, we can:

  • First, recognize that our current grading structures do not always tell a consistent or accurate story of student learning
  • Give up grading on a curve

Give students the chance to recover

A main takeaway is that many of our traditional grading polices do not give students a chance to recover from a slow start or a disruptive event. For example, if a course has four major assessments, a typical process might average the scores to calculate a final grade. Simple and fair, right? But if a student completely fails or does not turn in the first assessment, but then completes the last three with flying colors, we may feel proud that our student overcame great obstacles and ended the course with strong evidence of learning. However, with grades of 0, 100, 100, and 100, a student would never be able to get higher than a C in the course. 

When students have no chance of recovery, it looks quite appealing to drop a course rather than work extremely hard only to receive a low grade. Some suggestions to address this include: 

  • Use comprehensive exams or projects/papers that build on earlier learning
  • Weight/prioritize more recent performance to allow our grades to accurately reflect how well a student has learned what we want them to learn by the end of the course
  • Avoid zero-grade policies or using minimum grading (lowest score is 50%)
  • Use a 0-4 scale instead of 0-100

Require revisions and retakes

Another suggested practice is requiring students to redo or retake assessments. Feldman argues that some students have caregivers or support networks that will strongly encourage or even make them retake a failed test, ask for an extension, or take the instructor up on an offer to revise a big assignment. Those students may have the privilege of knowing these options are available, which is often wrapped up in our unspoken rules or “hidden curriculum.” Students without the same support structure may not know these options exist or feel empowered to take advantage of them. The instructor can take on that role and make it extremely possible, or at least nearly unavoidable, to receive a zero on a large assessment. 

While the logistical implications of this can vary, there are possible strategies: 

  • Create set times within a course for revising/improving/redoing assessments (mid- and end-of-term) which can normalize continual improvement
  • Provide a few standard options to demonstrate learning from mistakes (such as a memo addressing feedback, or a student-created artifact) to earn additional points
  • Use cumulative exams or projects that reveal if a student has learned from earlier mistakes and shows overall mastery of knowledge and skills

Be cognizant of bias

Throughout our courses, Feldman argues that our grades should reflect valid evidence of a student’s performance and learning, and not be based on “evidence that is likely to be corrupted by a teacher’s implicit bias or reflect a student’s environment” (p. 72).

For example, we want to prioritize mastery of content and skills in an assessment over issues of language or formatting, which can drastically reduce a grade. We may also want to reconsider the importance of the timing of our assessments. Sometimes a strict due date is essential, but sometimes it doesn’t really matter if a paper is turned in a few days late. If our true goal is student learning, we would rather haven them complete the assignment with quality and focus on the essential learning tasks. 

Another intriguing area centers around grading for effort or participation. Feldman cautions against grading formative or practice work and argues that when we grade everything, we risk undermining intrinsic motivation and inadvertently teach students to care more about points than learning. However, faculty in higher education often feel that we often need to provide incentives for students to complete practice work. In fact, many recommendations in higher education suggest that grading students for effort and participation is good practice (Schinske & Tanner, 2014). For example, Gillis (2018) proposes we reconceptualize and reformat our participating grades into a process that helps students build discussion and learning skills in college.

To address potential bias, strategies include: 

  • When possible, resist harsh penalties for factors unrelated to content or skills (timing, format, language learning)
  • Be open to creative and student-directed expressions of learning
  • Ensure that grading participation, effort, or extra credit does not reward or punish students for circumstances outside of their control
  • Create some “grade free” zones in your course 

Use grading structures that motivate and enable success

Learning is a process that involves many mistakes. Overall, Feldman’s ideas suggests that the way we grade should encourage and support students towards success. We want to show students that, “no matter where they start, or how many times they fail, success is possible” (p 161). Additional strategies include:

  • Be transparent and clearly explain assessments
  • Use small stakes assignments in addition to larger assessments
  • Create rubrics and share them with students
  • Incorporate self-assessment and peer assessment to promote meaningful feedback 
  • Include reflective questions to promote a growth mindset

Although some of the specific recommendations in Feldman’s book may not apply directly to higher education, the intent behind these principles still warrant consideration. We don’t often think of grading as a motivational act, but we can design our grading policies in a way that creates formative space for deeper learning and encourages students to keep working to be successful.

Feldman, J. (2018). Grading for equity: What it is, why it matters, and how it can transform schools and classrooms. Corwin Press.

Grading for Equity website with resources:

Gillis, A. (2019). Reconceptualizing participation grading as skill building. Teaching Sociology, 47(1), 10-21. 

Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching more by grading less (or differently). CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13(2), 159-166.

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