An upcoming “Equity Design Lab” signals new grading practices at elite NAIS schools, explicitly designed to benefit some racialized groups while disadvantaging others.
The National Association of Independent Schools is hosting an upcoming “Equity Design Lab” in July 2022 for teachers and administrators, led by Joe Feldman, the author of the influential 2018 book Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms.
Feldman’s book was a primary resource used at a Chicago-area high school to produce controversial grading changes for all their students. Oak Park and River Forest High School administrators plan to “integrate equitable assessment and grading practices into all academic and elective courses” by Fall of 2023.
According to Feldman, group differences in the grade outcomes students earn are inherently discriminatory, and often reflect unexamined teacher biases. To address these injustices requires actively dismantling traditional grading practices, substituting new assessment methods that favor some groups over others.
Selling Race-Based Outcomes
In a 2019 report available at the website of his consultancy Crescendo Education Group, Feldman claims that one of his interventions resulted in relatively fewer “non-white” students being “assigned” D’s or F’s as well as relatively fewer “white” students “assigned” A grades. (Hmm, when did grades become “assigned” rather than earned?)
To equity grading advocates like Feldman, the status quo is de facto inequitable in that it results in disparate outcomes. And although Grading for Equity’s prescriptions are not “race-based” in that they do not grade individual students differently based on their race, they are nonetheless engineered to result in equal outcomes for racialized groups, based on the Kendiist ideas that “Where I see racial disparities, I see racism,” and that “The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.” Other reasons for differences in learning outcomes—such as those having to do with how different students may choose to prioritize their academics—are completely ignored or assumed to be the function of privilege. Instead, the author points to “traditional grading practices” as the cause of existing disparities.
On their website, Crescendo bills itself as “a team of consultants – current and former teachers and school / district administrators – who believe that the most powerful way to improve student achievement, particularly for historically underserved populations, is to create powerful learning experiences for the education professionals in schools and districts.” Crescendo’s client list already includes two prestigious NAIS privates: Georgetown Day School and Phillips Exeter Academy.
What “Grading for Equity” looks like in practice
NAIS school parents should be on the lookout for major changes to grading policies at their private school next year, but what will those changes look like? Feldman’s prescription is to completely “reimagine” grading, in the following ways:
No more zeros and the death of deadlines: Homework that isn’t turned in should not receive a zero, and teachers should accept late work, even weeks or months late, with no grade penalty. Since students who do not turn in work or show up to class cannot be assumed to know nothing about a topic, it would be unfair to assign them a zero. (p. 76).
Homework, classwork, participation and effort should all be excluded from a course grade. “Equitable grading that is accurate and bias-resistant includes nothing other than a student’s summative assessment results” (p. 143). In other words, ideally 100% of a student’s marking period grade should result from their test scores. However, allowing potentially unlimited retake opportunities will supposedly alleviate any test anxiety that results from this single assessment category (see below).
Test “retakes should be available whenever a students wants to improve their performance.” Earlier, lesser scores should not factor into the grade at all. Even after the semester is over, a grade can potentially be changed. In cases when a later attempt results in a lower score, “examining the causes of the lower performance will reveal the right solution to ensuring that the grading is equitable.” It’s left unclear how these sorts of instances of “professional discretion” are any less prone to instances of bias Feldman is trying to alleviate. In response to skeptics who suggest an infinite-retake policy might set students up to fail in the real world, Feldman makes the remarkable claim that, actually, the real world is a forgiving place:
“The person taking your order in a restaurant can send it back to the kitchen to be corrected, the painter who forgets to apply primer can remove the paint and start over, the teacher whose first period class doesn’t go well can change things for second period and can even come back to first period the next day and reteach. The software programmers who make a coding error later send a patch. Sure there will be extra time and resources spent on all these examples, but that’s no different requiring the student to spend time after school to study and prepare for the retest.”
I find myself wondering if Joe Feldman has ever had to produce anything on budget. But moving on,
The 0-100 scale should be abandoned, and the letter grades A-F should correspond instead to a 0-4 scale. Where previously a student who only knows half of a course’s content would earn 50%, a failing grade, now knowing half the content or having half the level of skill would earn a C. This drastically reduces the baseline level of knowledge needed for passing a course.
Cumulative marking period grades should only include the most recent grade, in cases when a student shows improvement over time, and earlier test scores shouldn’t be averaged with later ones. However, in cases where the more recent grade is lower than the previous grade, a teacher should again “use professional discretion.” This approach might be accurate in courses where students spend an entire quarter mastering the same skill (like writing a persuasive essay) or where they learning the same content over the course of an entire quarter. But most courses present students with different units of content (and different skills) over the course of a quarter. In such cases, only counting the most recent grade would assign a result that doesn’t accurately reflect a student’s comprehensive knowledge of several areas. And such an approach unnecessarily disincentivizes the student who consistently excels. In addition to typecasting these students as “lucky” or “privileged”, Feldman finds it inherently inequitable to distinguish between the student that earns A’s all semester from the student that goes from C’s and D’s to an A. (p. 98-100)
Students who cheat on an assignment or test should not receive any grade penalty, since in Feldman’s view, grades should only reflect a student’s knowledge of a subject, not their ethics, effort, attitude, or behavior.
To be fair, some of Feldman’s recommendations make more sense, such as not assigning the same group grade to every member of a team in collaborative work, avoiding extra credit (in my own experience, generally the students who need extra credit don’t do it, and those that don’t, do) and increasing standards transparency for students with rubrics so that they understand the meaning of the letter grades they earn. Also, I agree with him that assessment categories should at least be standardized across courses (and probably departments). Two Algebra 2 students in different sections who understand the same amount shouldn’t be earning very different grades depending on the teacher. But in my experience, standardizing assessment across courses and even departments is already a priority in many schools.
Uncomfortable with such changes? “Be less skeptical.”
Feldman frames the resistance of skeptical teachers and administrators in much the same way that DEI promoters treat Critical Race Theory skeptics—pushback is interpreted as a sign of stubbornness, fragility and being “stuck in one’s ways.” He urges doubters to:
“try to put aside your devil’s advocate stance—why these practices can’t possibly work—and try an ‘angel’s advocate’ stance: Envision the possibilities and potential for teachers and students if we were to grade differently—more fairly, accurately, and equitably.”
The book also extensively cites educational research, but almost all of it supports only the theoretical framework behind Feldman’s proposals, not the specific proposals themselves. “Grading for Equity” relies most heavily on anecdotal stories and testimonials from enthusiastic teachers and students in order to justify its specific prescriptions. Feldman’s consultancy, Crescendo Education Group, has a “results page” that aims to demonstrate the increased accuracy of the more “equitable grades” that result from his interventions, but contain only a single year’s worth of changes from a single Los Angeles charter middle school 8 years ago. It’s also a red flag that his accuracy results reference only a single one of the three schools evaluated for equity. And there are no details about whether his recommended changes were implemented comprehensively or if teachers at these schools could use their discretion as to whether they could apply them a la carte.
Feldman also claims to reduce grade inflation—but according to his own published results, this reduction in inflation only applies to the top of the scale. By diminishing the grades of high achieving students while also resulting in fewer D’s and F’s, Grading For Equity effectively flattens the grade distribution overall. There’s another word for this kind of result that comes to mind—mediocrity.
I reached out to Mr. Feldman asking if he had any more support for his interventions, but as of this writing he had not yet responded.DONATE
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