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September 1, 2020
Vol. 78
No. 1

Turn & Talk / "Antiracist" Grading Starts with You

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    An interview with grading equity advocate and author Cornelius Minor on identifying pernicious grading practices and pernicious pedagogy to develop more equitable grading.

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    AssessmentEquity
      Cornelius Minor is a grading equity advocate and author of We Got This. Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be (Heinemann, 2018). A former middle school teacher, he is a lead staff developer with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University.
      How can grading practices support students who fell behind during the recent closures?
      First, I want to challenge the assumption of your question—the term "fall behind" is a social construct. This idea of where a person should be is not a naturally occurring thing. We know from child development psychologist Jean Piaget that all people develop differently and grow at different paces.
      Essentially, powerful teaching and learning are based on two things: assessment and intervention. When we meet students this fall, how will we most honestly and mindfully assess them and understand where they are? And then how will we move kids forward at a rate that's developmentally appropriate to them?
      What are the most pernicious grading practices in use today?
      Pernicious grading practices start out as pernicious pedagogy. I cannot separate grading practices from pedagogy, and I cannot separate pedagogy from the history of classism, sexism, racism, and ableism in the United States. The idea of what is successful at school is still very much constructed through an able-bodied, monied, aggressively competitive white male lens.
      You've argued that when left unchecked, the attitudes behind grading policies can be traumatizing
      Everybody wants to blame it on the practice. But even if we change practices, if we still believe certain kids are just more worthy and smart, grading will remain traumatizing. I'll give you one example, and we've all seen this happen: A teacher calls roll and then goes down the rows of desks collecting homework. Part of that ritual is public shaming. The kids who do not have homework to hand in are often given a mean look or a negative comment: "Oh, not again, Johnny." That communicates the message to all the other kids that this child is not as worthy. Kids pick up on that and start building social hierarchies as young as 1st grade. And to be clear: this happens disproportionality to children of color.
      Is there such a thing as antiracist grading?
      Absolutely. But again, I want to be very careful because one thing that's happening right now is that people almost want an antiracist activity playbook. You can't say, "I've adopted these three antiracist grading policies and now I'm antiracist." Antiracism is addressing the ideologies that govern schools. There absolutely is such a thing as antiracist grading, but it starts with me examining the biases that I bring into school and the discriminatory ideologies and structures that lead to the types of pedagogy I engage in. It's about me disrupting the very curriculum that I teach, and then it gets to the grading. Think of grading as the output: If your programming code is bad, the output of the program will always be bad.
      How would doing that inner work change grading practices?
      One thing we understand from Universal Design for Learning is that there are multiple ways a kid can express their knowing. And so if you know 2+2=4, one way you can express your knowing is by writing it. Another way you can express your knowing is by discussing it. A third way is by creating a model that shows it. A fourth way is by illustrating it and a fifth way is by performing a play. But in too many schools, only one way is considered legitimate. So if you write it, you get an A and that's it. There might be 100 kids in the school who know 2+2=4, but if only two of those kids can write it, then only two of those kids will receive As. That is profoundly discriminatory.
      One of the first aspects of truly inclusive grading is understanding that the assignment doesn't matter, the learning outcome does. At the end of the week, all I care about is, did the kid meet the learning outcome? I don't care about how they got there.
      If the ultimate goal is more equitable grading, where can teachers start?
      If I were to give teachers a starter kit, it would be to examine the ideologies that you bring into classrooms—the bad code, to repeat the computer metaphor. Three particularly pernicious ideologies show up in grading. The first is the ideology of should know. There's this false belief that if a 2nd grader walked into my classroom, there are certain things she should know. Rather, it's our job as teachers to discern what students do know and then move them forward.
      The second thing I would eliminate is the ideology of transactional gratitude. In most academic spaces, there is a silent pact that teachers make with students: I will agree to teach you well if you demonstrate to me that you are thankful for it. And if you do not demonstrate to me that you are thankful for it, I will withhold quality teaching from you. A teacher will be in the lounge and say something like, "You know, I've done everything to make sure that McKibben kid understands how to add. But all she does is yell. She's not thankful. So I'm not doing it no more." Or, "Can you believe I stayed after school for two hours to help Sarah with her essay and she still didn't turn it in? That kid can forget about it from me." We expect students to show up with gratitude because we do our jobs.
      The third is the ideology of deservedness. Even though grading is about proficiency, it often gets conflated with behavior. You can have a student who is proficient at calculus, but if the teacher doesn't like the fact that they are consistently late to class, that kid gets marked down. Again, there's an unspoken pact teachers have with their children: I will agree to teach you well if you demonstrate to me that you deserve it.
      If teachers start by examining—and eliminating—those three ideologies, then the grading that will come out on the other end of the system will be far better for children.

      Related Resource

      ASCD's Sarah McKibben talks to Brooklyn-based educator and equitable literacy reform advocate, Cornelius Minor, about antiracist grading policies. Watch the interview.





      Sarah McKibben is the editor in chief of Educational Leadership magazine.

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