Chicago students demonstrated extraordinary character and resilience during the pandemic crisis transitioning from traditional classroom learning experiences to remote learning practically overnight. Yet, resilience was not enough for some students who suffered a terrible fate: grading injustice.
Inequitable grading practices create undesirable outcomes for students of color, first-generation students and other historically marginalized students. As educators and national leaders try to figure out the best resolve for students this fall, equity has become more important now than ever before. However, equity will only be realized through the intentional efforts of all teachers. From classroom management to grading, equity touches every aspect of teaching and learning.
This work of disrupting inequities needs to be done because the privileged and those in power continue to widen the gap between themselves and those without opportunities. As educators, we must seek justice and equity for our students. It is our responsibility to call out flaws in our education system without fear or apprehension. And, as grading policies are systemic structures that have contributed to racism and injustice, it is also our responsibility to call out inequitable grading practices.
Calling Out Inequitable Grading Practices
A teacher leader and colleague recently shared an article with the senior grade level team titled, “The Case Against the Zero,” by Douglas Reeves and urged us to reconsider the way we use zeros, and he made a compelling argument. Several teachers changed their grading practices and philosophies because he challenged us to rethink how we grade.
Educators have an opportunity to transform schools. We are in the midst of a world-wide pandemic and we have no idea what students are dealing with personally, yet we still have a shared responsibility to our youth. A big part of that response is not to fail children who do not log on daily. When we exercise our grading power and privilege over any student, particularly students of color, we essentially take their lives. We slay them by enacting psychological violence that tells them they are not enough, that they don’t belong.
Our grading practices have to communicate information about students learning, not punish students in ways that make recovery from their transgressions impossible. A few years ago, I was a participant in a race and equity professional learning community with the Network for College Success. During one of our controversial conversations on being an anti-racist educator, one teacher said she had come to the revelation that her grade book reflected her white values, not what her students could do.
That statement hit me like a freight train. Our grading policies and practices reveal so much about us. They show how we define and envision our relationship to students, what we think best prepares them for success, our beliefs about them and even our self-concept of who we are. Read how teachers are changing grading practices to support equity.
While it's going to take some real systemic grading policy changes from the district's end, there are things all of us can do right now to make improvements on our own grading practices toward interrupting grading inequities.
The first step in this process is for teachers to create an outstanding educational experience that stimulates students' intellectual curiosity, critical thinking and innovation. This can be accomplished through problem-based learning, a student-organized learning environment (SOLE) or Genius Hour.
The second step is to ask the essential questions:
What does successful distance learning look like?
How is it being measured?
How can we broaden the typical metric?
How can we make distance learning accessible and equitable for all students?
Another step in this process is to focus on students who were already not achieving academic success in our traditional classroom setting. Then we must talk to parents and figure out the best way to support them and their children. We need to consider what it looks like for each student’s unique situation. Educators must move from all students to each student.
Finally, we must challenge commonly held beliefs that allow us to excuse grading inequity and injustice. It is our responsibility as educators to offer our students an equitable and just education, no matter the circumstances.
Tina Curry teaches speech at Sarah. E. Goode STEM Academy in Chicago where she has also served as Equity Coach. As an adjunct professor of education at National Louis University in Chicago, she was named Graduate Faculty of Year in 2019. She is a contributing writer for "Teaching Racial Equity: Becoming Interrupters" and a member of the Illinois Writing Project Leadership Team.