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September 24, 2020

A Roadmap for Equitable Grades

Assessment has been the focus of educational reform in recent years. However, the grading system still largely maintains the same punitive tactics with no overwhelming consensus on what constitutes "best" practices. Teachers create their own grading systems, policies, and practices for what students should know and do. These practices reveal teachers' beliefs about learning and assessment, and not all teachers share the same beliefs, even across the same discipline. There's plenty of room for grading to be subjective and biased, especially if objectives and criteria are not clearly written and communicated to students or if teachers overwhelmingly prefer grades over students' mastery of content objectives (Feldman, 2019).
Grades awarded under such conditions may not accurately reflect students' knowledge and skills, particularly for those with special needs, English language learners, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and students of color. If inequities in grading are not addressed early, they could potentially perpetuate inequity in future opportunities.
The question is: How do teachers grade and communicate students' formative and summative assessment scores throughout the year? In working with teacher candidates, we observed misconceptions in grading that happened in some classroom environments. The first challenge that teachers encounter is understanding the vocabulary related to assessment and grading. Most teachers do not reflect on what exactly it means to have equitable grading.  Is equitable grading part of the formative or summative assessment?

Authentic Assessment

Equitable grading means fair, meaningful grades to students, regardless of students' diverse backgrounds. It reflects students' mastery of knowledge and skills based on measurable and observable course objectives that promote learning. The challenge is how teachers accurately assess what students can do in authentic educational and life experiences, whether in remote, hybrid, or in-person learning environments. When grading during times such as the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers need to consider the unique contexts that may cause stress. In our work with teacher candidates who are teaching online, we encourage no-grade feedback, since the focus is on motivating students rather than on the final product or performance.
We suggest the following three steps to help teachers start building equitable grading and assessments:
1. Set clear objectives. These objectives should be aligned with district or state standards, activities, and assessments. Students should have a clear understanding of what knowledge and skills they will demonstrate upon completing the lesson/unit/course activities. Clear science objectives for 3rd graders classifying organisms might be to a) identify the similarities and differences between vertebrates and invertebrates, and b) classify animals as vertebrates or invertebrates using a graphic organizer.
2. Develop observable criteria. Students need measures to successfully achieve the goal or expectation. Bloom's Taxonomy, Webb's Depth of Knowledge, and Marzano's Dimensions of Learning can be very useful for developing measurable course objectives. Criteria should be concise, student-friendly, easily understood, and clearly communicated so that students understand expectations.
For the 3rd graders mastering classification, criteria might look like the following:
a. Identify the similarities and differences between vertebrates and invertebrates. If you scored nine out of 10, you demonstrated mastery (thumbs up).
b. If you scored seven out of 10 and below, you need an action plan to reach thumbs up.
3. Provide opportunities for success. Teachers should set reasonable and realistic expectations and change modifications for every student so that the grading is inclusive. A misconception of equitable grading is to lower expectations for students, especially for those with disabilities or those from culturally linguistically diverse backgrounds. We've noticed that some teachers set lower expectations because they think high expectations may intimidate students.
In fact, studies show that teachers' expectations are correlated to student motivation and academic achievement (Berns, 2016). Therefore, for grades to be meaningful, all teachers should insist on high-quality and excellent work (Nieto, 2013). Teachers who understand that knowing their students well, respecting students' cultural values, and tailoring their teaching and curricular materials to meet diverse needs are able to provide opportunities for student success (Berns, 2016; Nieto, 2013).
This also means providing opportunities for students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills through various formats and modalities over time. Makeup tests should not be more difficult or address learning in a different way than the original test (Perlman, 2005).

Creating an Equitable (Formative, Summative) Assessment Rubric

Grading equitable assessments, which are aligned to learning standards, objectives, and activities, makes use of rubrics that illuminate student learning and mastery. Such a rubric allows students to understand that formative assessment checks for understanding and progress and allows mistakes and revisions. Grades on the rubric are not summative and are for monitoring growth, so teachers should write meaningful comments to go with the grade.
Take a look at this example of a standard-based rubric for grades 3-5 aligned with ISTE standards 3b and 4a, 4b. Teachers can define the following vocabulary for the class to make the language meaningful to students: innovation, target audiences, benchmarks or standards, design process, and framework.
ISTE Standards for Students
Standard 3-Knowledge Constructor
Students critically curate a variety of resources using digital tools to construct knowledge, produce creative artifacts and make meaningful learning experiences for themselves and others.
Standard 4-Innovative Designer
Students use a variety of technologies within a design process to identify and solve problems by creating new, useful or imaginative solutions.
The evidence criteria at each level (below standard, approaching standard, and at standard) provide students with the observable criteria that they will need to demonstrate. It is important that the teacher and the student come up with an action plan together that takes into account the student's abilities and access to resources. This way of communicating grades to students deliberately connects grades to learning and provides valuable feedback regarding the student's academic strengths and weaknesses. In the era of accountability, teachers have evidence of how they monitor students' progress against reasonable and realistic expectations.
Though creating a grading rubric is time-consuming, student progress rubrics are a must-have to attain equitable grading. Creating an equitable system requires knowing students well and taking account of each individual's strengths, preferences, resources, and language, so that feedback is inclusive. With these steps, teachers will be on their way to more equitable practices.

Berns, R. (2016). Child, family, school, and community: Socialization and support (10th ed.). Cengage.

Nieto, S. (2013).  Finding joy in teaching students of diverse backgrounds. Heinemann

Esther Ntuli is an associate professor in the Department of Teaching and Educational Studies at Idaho State University. Her research interest focuses on technology use and practice in early childhood instruction, teacher education, assessment, and culturally responsive education.

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