“Grades should be a mirror,” not a carrot and a stick. -Feldman

Grading for Equity by Joe Feldman

Feldman, Joe. 2019. Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Curriculum. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

It is rare that a text fundamentally shakes the ground upon which your pedagogy stands. Grading for Equity accomplished this task and facilitated a reconstruction from the ashes. In this essential text, Joe Feldman tackles the challenges and inequities perpetuated by traditional assessment methods. Confronting the research question, “How can we minimize traditional grading’s negative impact on learning, particularly for vulnerable student populations, and instead reimagine grading to encourage, rather than undermine, effecting teaching and learning” Feldman guides the reader through a story of one Middle School Principal’s struggle to provide an equitable education. Throughout this journey the following aspects of assessment are examined: the commodity of grades, implicit bias, grade hacks, conflation of soft skills and content knowledge, and extrinsic motivation. After deconstructing traditional assessment methods, Feldman argues that rubrics, minimum grades, retakes, achievement scaling, and summative grading provide an equitable environment in which all students can succeed. 

Point based systems that average or weigh all assignments from a course to assign course grades do not accurately assess students’ learning achievement nor motivate students to learn. Teachers who use 0-100 point-based grading scales act as bankers, in a manner similar to Freire’s banking concept of education.  For example, Feldman notes that “student mistakes are penalized during the very stage of learning when students should be making mistakes,” and that these penalizations then provide barriers to course success (30). Instructors rely on students to take chances and feel comfortable out of their comfort zone, all of which are not promoted by penalizing students for mistakes. In effect the most recent assessment provides the most accurate measure of students’ achievements, not an average of everything completed during the learning process. Under this point-based traditional system, plagiarism according to Feldman, is “more of a survival tactic than a moral failure” (31). Citing a study by Skinner, Feldman also reminds us that “research has shown that extrinsic motivation is not an effective motivation strategy for authentic learning” (34). In effect, the traditional model acts to dehumanize the learner and reward compliance at the expense of education. Where the learning itself should be the motivation!

When assessment is vulnerable and ripe with bias, when it treats students differently based upon their socioeconomic status, everyone loses. For example, rewarding points for homework completion, not only discourages learning as noted above, it also treats students differently for environmental factors that are outside of their control. Most instructors assign zeros for missing or incomplete work. Yet, the zero creates a scenario where, “it’s so hard to bring your grade up, but so easy to bring it down” (83). “In other words, grades that average scores over time reflect the advantages and disadvantages of a student’ circumstances” (98).

Grades are not a scarce resource and should not be treated as such! Using a bell curve and grading each student against the other reinforces the notion that achievement is only valued in competition with others. As Feldman noted, “When we use grades to compare students either explicitly with class rankings, merit awards based on a student’s achievement relative to peers or as woven into our grading through the use of the curve, we encourage competition and send the message that achievement is only meaningful when it’s higher than someone else’s achievement” (62). The DMV doesn’t only allow 10% of applicants to earn a driver’s license, so why should instructors gatekeep higher grades?

To confront these challenges and inequitable practices, Feldman suggest that assessment be accurate, bias-resistant, and motivational. Minimum grading and the 0-4 scale confront the “super F” dilemma and allows students to learn from their mistakes. It also allows instructors to more accurately notate if a student has not yet submitted material for assessment or has and has not satisfied the standards. Mandatory retakes, and or working into scaffolded assessment retake measures, allows instructors to more accurate measure a student’s achievement. Retakes also diminish the rewards for plagiarism, and the inequitable effects of extra credit and soft skills bias. We must, as Feldman claims, “stop relying on our grading as a classroom management strategy,” and instead create a system in which “students earn a grade based on what they themselves have learned, nothing more, nothing less” (147). Grades should be seen as temporary descriptors of a student’s mastery of the content, always flexible for growth and improvement. Rubrics remedy both issues of accuracy, bias, and motivation. “Rubrics share information and power… rubrics equip students to self-assess and even to peer-assess… they can protect us from bringing our implicit biases about students into our evaluation … [and ensure] evaluations are consistent” (189). When rubrics distinguish between content knowledge and soft skills, they help students make the connection between them and motivate students to develop both skills in tandem (218).

 Feldman’s Grading for Equity has established itself as a fundamental must-read for anyone in education. Those who have a particular affinity with equity will find the text both challenging and refreshing. As the first text to focus on assessment equity issues, Feldman’s work is sure to spark a long-lasting conversation as educators strive to implement his suggestions and measure their results. I cannot wait to see what this conversation brings next!