For students and families, grades help determine course placement, athletic and extracurricular eligibility, employment possibilities, and college admission and financial aid. Grades shape students’ identities as learners and their life trajectories. To district leaders, grades are a barometer of their schools’ effectiveness, pointing to achievement gaps, weaknesses in instruction, and professional development needs.
But across most schools, grades do not provide fair, objective, and accurate reflections of student academic performance. Because grading is not addressed in teacher preparation or professional development, teachers often develop their own way to grade, uninformed by research or best practices. Many common grading practices perpetuate achievement gaps, reinforcing differences in family resources and support based on students’ race and income.
Specifically, traditional grades and grading practices:
- Vary from teacher to teacher, resulting in student grades reflecting a teacher’s specific grading practices as well as the student’s achievement. Schools with formal grading policies typically focus on surface-level consistencies, such as a grading scale. They should be developing a common understanding of what content mastery looks like or how to measure and report it consistently.
- Provide unclear and often misleading information to key stakeholders. Grades combine so many diverse aspects of performance—academic proficiency, “soft skills,” behaviors, attendance, participation, and effort. It is often impossible to determine what grades represent.
- Are often infected by implicit racial, class, and gender biases. Teachers who include a student’s “effort” or “participation” in the grade are evaluating a student’s behavior—not their learning. They unavoidably infuse their grades with subjective and culturally biased lenses that frequently penalize African-American, Latino, low-income, and special education students. Further, students with greater resources are more likely to complete homework and earn extra credit—both of which are often incorporated into grading. Students who have weaker education backgrounds and fewer supports are likely to be penalized even when they show growth and learning.
- Are based on mathematically unsound calculations. Current grading systems conflict with contemporary beliefs about growth mindset and encouraging students to learn through practice and experimentation. An F earned early in learning and an A at the end of learning traditionally average as a C, regardless of the progress and final achievement, punishing students for early struggles.
What more equitable grading looks like
By contrast, more equitable practices:
- Apply mathematically sound approaches, using a 0-4 instead of a 0-100 point scale; avoid giving students scores of zero; and weigh more recent performance and growth instead of averaging performance over time.
- Value knowledge, not environment or behavior. They reflect what students know and can do, not how teachers perceive or interpret their behavior. Grades are not used to reward compliance.
- Support hope and a growth mindset, encouraging mistakes as necessary for learning and building students’ persistence. Teachers allow test or project retakes and replace previous scores with current scores.
- Make grades simpler to understand and more transparent. Teachers create detailed rubrics to evaluate student performance and use simplified grade calculations and standards-based scales and grade books.
- Build soft skills without including them in the grade, supporting students’ intrinsic motivation to learn rather than relying on an external system where every action is worth “points.”
Questions and strategies
School board leaders can encourage a critical examination of grading practices by probing how much teachers’ grades are based on students’ mastery of course content and standards versus extra credit, homework, and behavior. They can explore how much grades correlate with test scores and consider the value of more equitable grading to close achievement gaps.
Districts who have successfully implemented equitable grading share some common strategies:
- Bring the right people to the table at the beginning. In San Leandro Unified School District (SLUSD), a racially diverse, low-income district outside of San Francisco, district leaders hosted a workshop strategy session for middle and high school administrators to introduce the concept of equitable grading. In California’s Placer Union High School District (PUHSD), a more rural and suburban system, central office leaders convened a closed study session on equitable grading with the school board to gain approval and generate a “tailwind” for launching the work.
- Pilot test approaches through teacher-led action research. Both districts identified an initial cohort of interested department chairs and other teachers to explore new grading practices and launched a series of workshops. SLUSD included instructional coaches. The cohort learned about more equitable grading practices and tested them, examining results within a structured series of action research cycles. After a year, the responses from each district’s pilot cohort were overwhelmingly positive—not only because evidence demonstrated the benefits of these practices, but because the professional development design was empowering.
- Expand the effort over time. For two more years, the districts enrolled additional cohorts of teachers. They reached a critical mass of teachers who experienced how the equitable grading practices improved their effectiveness, increased student motivation, and reduced stress in the classrooms. Data revealed that:
- The rate of students receiving Ds and Fs decreased—and decreased more dramatically for students of color and those with special needs. In SLUSD, the reduction in Ds and Fs rates among a single cohort of teachers allowed the district to reallocate the cost of 250 remedial “seats” to other instructional needs.
- Grade inflation decreased, especially among more privileged student populations. In PUHSD, this reflected how traditional grading disproportionately benefits students with resources because of the inclusion of extra credit and other resource-dependent grading criteria.
- Students’ grades improved, and grading was more accurate. External evaluators found that more equitable grading practices significantly decrease the difference between students’ grades and their scores on standardized tests. The effect has been stronger for low-income students.
- Students felt less stress and anxiety. Now that they weren’t being judged for their behaviors, every classroom activity, and homework assignments, students felt more comfortable taking risks. Classrooms felt more relaxed and mistake-friendly. Students continued to do their homework even when they weren’t getting points.
When district leaders don’t critically examine their grading policies, they unwittingly perpetuate the very disparities that they want to correct. School board members, alongside their administrators and teachers, can make equitable grading a priority that affirms their district’s commitment to providing all children full opportunities for success.
Joe Feldman (email@example.com) is a former teacher, principal, and district administrator and is the founder and CEO of Crescendo Education Group. He is the author, most recently, of Grading for Equity and School Grading Policies Are Failing Children.