A shift to a more equitable grading in Nothern California is reducing students’ fear of failure and, proponent says, providing a clearer picture of the specific skills students have mastered.
While many districts overhauled the grading policies to account for the connectivity problems and the other challenges students have faced during COVID, a handful of K-12 leaders began the transition as a part of equity work that began years before the pandemic.
“Competency-based grading gives student hope,” says Jeffrey Tooker, deputy superintendent for educational services at the Placer Union High School District north of Sacramento. “Students who used to walk into class thinking they’re going to fail immediately now have hope that by the end of the course they can demonstrate mastery and pass and not have to retake.”
Competency-based grading jibes with standards- and mastery-based grading models that, in the most basic sense, aim to make it harder for students to get Ds and Fs, which can devastate learners academically and emotionally, Tooker says. Another key component to equitable grading is ensuring grades only take academic abilities into account without bonuses for extra credit or reductions for behavioral issues.
Placer Union High School District started its reform process with a group of volunteer teachers and has since expanded gradually across its four buildings as educators began to recognize the merits of more equitable grading. Teachers have shifted to a 1-through-4 grading scale to replace the traditional 100-point scale that has been criticized for being tilted heavily toward failure. Teachers now place less weight on homework and other activities designed for practice and give more weight to grades earned at the end of a course when a student has had more chances to hone their skills.
White paper: “A Call to Action for Equitable Grading”
Students also have opportunities to retake tests—or parts of tests—on which they’ve one poorly. Finally, many teachers are also no longer offering extra credit, which can unfairly advantage more affluent students who have more resources to succeed on these assignments. Teachers who have been involved in implementing the new system have called it “the most meaningful work they’ve ever done,” Tooker says.
What about college?
Placer Union High School District converts its standards-based scale into letter grades for report cards and college transcripts. “Colleges now have a more accurate academic representation of the students they’re considering because teachers have taken out components that could be considered arbitrary to learning,” Tooker says. “Their conversations with students are now all about learning and which essential skills they’ve mastered. It’s not all about, what do I do to collect points to get my grades?”
If a student needs more time to master a skill at the end of a course, the teacher will work with their parents to issue an “incomplete.” The students will then receive intervention with the goal of turning that into a passing grade. Educators also regularly get regular feedback on the grading system from students, who have suggested it be more standardized from teacher to teacher—so that, for example, a high score from one teacher means the same thing as a higher score from another.
Tooker strongly disagrees with those who say this approach doesn’t reflect the challenges students will face as adults. For instance, he says, if you fail a driving test, the DMV gives you several more chances to pass.
“Grades now show us what students have learned and, more importantly, what they still haven’t learned and how they can focus on that,” Tooker says. “It has been extremely difficult work and extremely transformational work for our district.”
Grades reflect understanding
The shift to more equitable grading began in San Leandro USD at the same time educators incorporated more project-based learning in their classes, says Sonal Patel, assistant superintendent of educational services for the district that’s just south of Oakland, California.
Educators realized that because the traditional grading system focused too heavily on basic compliance and participation, the grades were often punitive rather than reflective of a students’ knowledge. They also recognized that ramping up and enhancing intervention services was not a solution to the disproportionate number of Ds of Fs students were receiving. “It devastates students’ abilities, once they get an F, to mathematically and motivationally recoup the grade,” Patel says.
The move to equitable grading has been an educational game changer—and not just for students. “The teacher feedback has been overwhelming,” Patel says. “They’re saying things like, ‘I had no ideas that my grading had this sense of punishment and judgment,’ that it wasn’t really about teaching and learning.”
Teachers have also found that, when students have a clearer idea of their own progress, there is less need for intervention. This gives teachers more time to offer enrichment in the topics they feel are most important for students to learn.
In San Leandro USD classrooms that have made the shift, an F is now a 50 rather than a zero, students can retake tests, homework is no longer graded, teachers do not automatically mark down assignments when they are turned in late, and extra credit has been eliminated. A student’s end-of-course grade relies more heavily on regular assessments, both summative and formative, than it does on day-to-day work, Patel says.
The district’s D- and F-rates have dropped but, also, some kids have received fewer A’s. That’s because the extra credit and homework they used to turn in had no bearing on whether they’d mastered a certain skill, Patel says.
“This grading accurately reflects students’ understanding rather than their work habits,” Patel says.