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Building Awareness for Equitable Grading Practices

January 29, 2020 - 4 minute read

Girl doing homework

"Grading practices are a mirror not just for students, but for us as their teachers." Joe Feldman

After being handed a copy of Joe Feldman's book, Grading for Equity at the summer administrative leadership retreat, I enthusiastically learned about the three pillars of equitable grading: accuracy, bias-resistance, and motivation. I noticed the timeliness of the book as we currently grapple with the realities of what it means to create a more inclusive school community where each and every student is given an equitable opportunity to succeed. Seeking to build a shared vision, I worked alongside my administrative team to devise a plan for presenting our newly acquired knowledge to our combined middle school/high school staff. We discussed the importance of beginning a conversation about how to address the ideas presented in Feldman's book. With an instructional coaching team of seven teachers from across disciplines, our shared planning time provided a prime environment to dive into the work.

Our guiding question: How can our grading practices help to build a more inclusive educational community for our students?

Establishing the Vision
Using a collaborative process to seek all ideas and input, the instructional team created a coaching vision for the upcoming school year: To support a healthy learning environment through reflection, continuous growth, and a commitment to high-quality instruction. Once we established the vision, it became the driving force behind the development of meaningful, job-embedded professional learning for our teachers. A few instructional coaches came up with the idea of starting a staff book club with the first selection being Feldman’s book. Perfect!

Supporting the Team
Through a process of ongoing communication and support for the instructional coaching team, we established bi-weekly meetings to share ideas, discuss our progress, and plan upcoming professional learning opportunities with the staff. Shared norms, working agendas, Google docs, and structured conversations helped foster the collaborative culture during our meetings. Frequent discussions about our grading practices developed into more extended conversations about why we developed certain grading practices and what was the origin of our grading philosophies. We planned staff book club meetings during multiple teacher preparation periods, which supported ongoing collegial discussions. Teachers were open and honest, therefore widening the opportunity for further reflection and learning.

Reciprocal Learning
The informal book club approach allowed for reciprocal learning to take place. Colleagues shared ideas and wonderings with one another and learned something along the way; each staff member benefiting from hearing the others’ experiences, rationale, and perspective.

The open forum provided teachers with the opportunity to ask, wonder, and contemplate potential changes. This safe space evolved into the idea of creating a panel discussion by inviting teachers to share their takeaways at an upcoming late start meeting. Eight teachers volunteered to share their thoughts about Feldman's book. It was exciting to observe staff members engaged in a lively discussion, including a question and answer section with those who had not yet read the book. Several teachers brought copies of the book to lend to their colleagues. A collegial synergy emerged where teachers began to learn from one another in a professional environment that encourages the positive exchange of ideas to support improved student learning. A few of the key takeaways expressed by teachers were:

  • We should focus on determining what students know and are able to do by creating ways for students to demonstrate their understanding of the content after each lesson.
  • Teachers should value knowledge over grades based on student work, not the timing of the work.
  • The grading system should motivate and inspire students.
  • Teachers should confront traditional classroom systems that create inequity by examining extra credit and participation grades.

Honest Conversations
I approached several of the teachers who shared their ideas about equitable grading and the ways they were trying to develop a system where grades in their classes accurately reflect ongoing student learning and progress toward proficiency in a given content area. Teachers shared the impact of bias-resistant grades when they realized that some students are no longer disproportionately rewarded for arbitrarily assigned homework or participation criteria that benefit only a few students. Furthermore, a few teachers added ways they created motivational activities that engage students in real-world tasks that connect to their lives and their future plans for college, career, or beyond. When surveyed after the meeting, 48% of the staff was interested in reading the book. The brave journey of our teachers continues and I'm excited to share our successes, progress, and challenges as we nurture an even more inclusive school community.

Nina Glassen is an Assistant Principal at Costa Mesa High School in Newport Mesa Unified School District, overseeing curriculum and instruction. Before her current position, she served the Capistrano Unified School District for over 20 years as a history teacher, instructional coach, and secondary history-social science curriculum specialist. Nina is a professor in the Graduate Education Department at Vanguard University, where she teaches Language Acquisition and Content Area Literacy courses to pre-service teachers. Nina received her doctorate in Educational Leadership from Concordia University Irvine in December 2019.

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