Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

Grading Can Be Capitalist, Racist, and Exploitative

Part Three: Inequitable Grading Practices

By Ken Shelton and Nadia Razi

Silver scales with a white index finger pushing down on one side

In order to understand how to sustainably implement equitable grading practices, it is important to understand the inequity of our current practices. As we have touched on previously, any systems or policies that are part of the school game are inequitable by design. They do not account for the myriad of ways learning occurs, how that knowledge and learning can be represented, nor do they account for inherent teacher bias. Striving for equity in grading is to recognize that it’s truly possible to have an equitable grading system that authentically represents knowledge and understanding, despite grading being problematic at its core.

As we further examine grading practices, consider how you assess learning in your classroom. For example, as student works are submitted, are there any ongoing opportunities for feedback, and what is the frequency? Does the submission of an assignment serve as an ending to the learning at that time? In other words, when an assignment is turned in, is the only remaining feedback the score assigned to that turned-in work?

It has been well documented and researched that feedback and reflection are just as critical to the learning process as the work itself. All students’ works, within reason, should include opportunities for reflection, refinement, and resubmission. By ensuring ongoing opportunities for feedback and revision within the learning process, we can foster higher degrees of student analysis of their work as well as encourage learners to ask themselves: “How might this work improve?” “Is this work the best representation of my knowledge and understanding?” In addition, to increase equity within a learning opportunity, consider asking learners: “Are there any questions you were not asked that may provide more insight into your knowledge and understanding?”

Grading Conversations In School

In an attempt to create grading “equity” across our content or grade-level teams, we have agreed upon a set of common policies and procedures, including penalties for late work, use of the standard grading scale (0–59% — F, 60–69% — D, 70–79% — C, 80–89% — B, 90–100% — A), and that class participation should account for no more than 10–15% of the overall grade. Some of us have toyed with the idea of rethinking our grading system, but a common response tends to be, “We’ve always done it this way” (the most dangerous phrase in our language, according to Grace Hopper). When we agree to this rigid, outdated grading policy in the name of equity, “equity” actually manifests as equality of grading policies, which are inherently inequitable.

When we reflect on grading inequity in schools, the examples and parts of conversations that come to mind are often in the context of classism:

  • Providing “bonus points” to students who bring in school supplies for the class
  • Offering extra credit for event attendance outside of school
  • Rewarding students for having everything they need already in their backpack
  • Receiving “point deductions” for absences or tardiness beyond students’ control
  • Policing student cameras during remote learning; expecting them to have a designated workspace and high-speed internet access at home

But beyond this conflation of capitalism and education, there are many, explicit or inferred, practices we may have yet to realize are inequitable.

Grading Inequity Is More Systemic Than We Think

Once we realize that our grading practices are not designed to assess actual student learning, we now must consider the impact of these practices and policies and how they disadvantage students in the context of cultural, linguistic, or neurological factors. Grading is implicitly rooted in racism, anti-Blackness, sexism, transphobia, and ableism (mental, intellectual, physical). A truly equitable grading policy means that every student has the same opportunity to succeed, which means that to assess learning, we would need to mitigate the myriad injustices students face every day in our schools. Students of color, students with disabilities, LGBQ+ students, trans and nonbinary students, English learners, etc., etc., etc. experience curricular and environmental trauma which, research shows, affects their ability to learn and perform.

Dr. Bettina Love argues that our school environments encourage students to “have good character, which is the code for comply, comply, comply. . . good character is dependent on how much they obey.” And our grading practices often reinforce this dynamic.

Racism

  • Character Traits, Citizenship, “Politics of Respectability”: For example, “citizenship” marks for behavior often defined within a culturally incompetent perspective and so-called defiance / attitude / disrespect from students of color (often designated as “willful defiance”)
  • Assessment of Proficiency in Traumatic Curriculum: For example, family history projects, “buy a slave” / mock auction activities, whitewashed textbooks, colonized curriculum

Ableism

  • Control Over Body Functions: For example, point deductions for / bonus points for not using bathroom passes, sitting in uncomfortable positions
  • Attention/Attentive Expectations: For example, staying seated for an entire class period, speaking or reading aloud, raising a hand to be seen and heard in class, not speaking “out of turn” (consider ADHD, anxiety, depression, neurodiversity, etc.)

Intersectional

Kimberlé Crenshaw defines intersectionality as “a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other,” rather than considering each system of inequality as individual and separate.

  • Dress Code / Uniform: For example, students have to purchase “acceptable” clothing, and access to laundry machines/facilities or owning multiple sets of clothing (classism), often with definitive examples of skirt, sleeve, and neckline requirements (sexism), and even color of clothing (racism and conformity)
  • Personal Appearance: For example, discriminatory hair policies (racism, sexism), head coverings (sexism, Islamophobia), wearing of hats or hoodies (cultural incompetence, ethnocentrism), school uniform size and design limitations (fatphobia), policing of “overly revealing” clothing (racism, sexism/hypersexualization, fatphobia, toxic masculinity)

In summation, among the many problems with the aforementioned list is that these are often associated with or even counted as a part of a student’s grade. Including non-academic factors in students’ academic marks exacerbates already existing achievement gaps as clearly defined in school data around college and career readiness (School or District Data can be found here).

Next Steps

It may seem overwhelming to re-imagine our grading policies to empower students amid the trauma and injustice they feel in our classrooms, but to ignore it is actively harming our students, disproportionately more so our students who are of marginalized and oppressed identities. Our only option, as Dr. Ibram X. Kendi explains, is to fight against our inequitable and racist grading systems, as “one either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’ The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism.” Awareness of these policies and inequities without action equates to the “neutrality” Dr. Kendi warns against. In our next post, we will explore strategies and tangible steps to work toward antiracist and equitable grading practices.

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Ken Shelton

Ken Shelton

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Keynote Speaker, TEDx Speaker, AB/AR Educator, Google Certified Innovator, Apple Distinguished Educator, MIEE, Visual Storyteller, (http://kennethshelton.net)