The education community has been experimenting with ways to improve grading practices for the past several decades. Some of these efforts aim to improve educational outcomes for students. Others intend to increase student engagement in learning by making grading more transparent and meaningful to students. Unfortunately, many efforts to reform grading systems fail to address equity issues. When teachers adopt equitable grading practices, they help level the playing field for all learners and ensure that their assessments are actually measuring what they intend to measure.
What is equitable grading & why is it important?
Equitable grading is the practice of assigning fair and meaningful grades to students, regardless of students' learning needs. It’s the belief that grading should reflect a student’s mastery of standards and skills based on measurable objectives that paint a holistic picture of understanding. Too often, grades fail to show what students know and don’t know, making it difficult for students to know where they are in their learning, and for teachers to accurately and proactively address learning needs.
The reality is that grades shape a student’s learning identity and education trajectory in many ways. However, even with the stakes this high, most grades do not provide a fair and objective overview of academic achievement. When grading varies from teacher to teacher with no clear criteria or baseline for best practices, underprivileged students often remain at a disadvantage.
Although many of us are familiar with letter grades on a report card, it's almost impossible to determine what each grade truly represents in the learning process. A recent study found that up to 40% of traditional student grades include non-academic criteria that do not reflect student learning gains—including participation and on-time homework submission. As a result, traditional grading may pose barriers to underprivileged students—such as low-income or special education students—that are already struggling to meet academic standards. Further, knowing that grades are often a combination of a student's understanding of standards as well as soft skills such as attendance, involvement, and effort, the traditional grading scale rarely provides teachers with the actionable data they need to improve student understanding and adjust instruction.
Key considerations for equitable grading practices.
Here are a few best practices to keep in mind while evaluating and improving your grading systems:
Lead with a growth mindset.
Mastery doesn’t happen overnight! The culture around traditional grading practices comes with a lot of baggage. It’s important that teachers help students understand that grades should inform and accelerate learning. Sometimes this means providing students with multiple opportunities to submit and resubmit assignments to improve their scores and most importantly, their understanding of a subject.
Aim for transparency in grading.
Teachers should work together to share grading best practices and ensure there is a shared process with detailed rubrics used to evaluate student performance. Without clear guidelines and collaboration, grading can vary from teacher to teacher, making it even more difficult for students and parents to determine what a grade represents.
Establish your grading policy
Grades should ultimately reflect what students know and can do, not how teachers perceive or interpret their behavior. After collaborating with colleagues to establish best practices and processes, teachers should continually consider grade validity by asking themselves, “Do the grades I’m assigning mean what I say they mean?” Building grade objectives and definitions such as content mastery into a grading policy creates a sound source of truth to refer back too.
Equitable grading starts with meaningful assessment.
Assessments should be used regularly throughout the year to check for student understanding of a specific set of standards so instruction can be adjusted along the way. Start by balancing your assessment approach to include formative assessments that provide greater insights behind the grade.
Communication is key.
Teachers should be clear about what is expected, how students will demonstrate their understanding, how they can improve, and where to go for additional help. When it comes to grading, grades are inevitable, but feedback is personal. Teachers should also provide actionable and timely feedback with clear next steps to ensure students continue to improve and don’t get discouraged.
Grading for everyone.
At its core, equitable grading is about recognizing that every student deserves a fair opportunity to succeed in school. By shifting away from inequitable practices, we can create learning environments that are more welcoming, more engaging, and ultimately more fair for all students. At Instructure, we believe in the investment in this type of learning environment and are committed to creating products that promote equity in the classroom.
Learn more about how to use EdTech to develop an equitable instructional strategy.