A few years ago, schoolteacher Joshua Moreno got tired of his grading system, which turned into a game of points.
Some early-stage students scored so many points that by the end of the semester they knew they no longer needed to work and could still get an A. Others – often those who have had to work or take care of family members after school – can’t finish their homework and are so far behind that they just stop trying.
“It was literally unfair,” he said. “As a teacher, you are upset because you signed up for students to learn. And in the end it turned into a constant conversation about points of view. “
These days, the Alhambra high school English teacher has gotten rid of the points entirely. It no longer gives students homework and gives them many opportunities to improve their essays and classwork. The goal is to base grades on what students are learning and eliminate behavior, deadlines, and workload from the equation.
Moreno’s changes are part of a growing trend in which educators are moving away from traditional grading systems in an effort to close large academic gaps between racial, ethnic and economic groups. The trend has been exacerbated by the pandemic and school closures, which have sparked alarming increases in D and F students across the country, as well as calls to explore the role of institutionalized racism in schools following the assassination of George Floyd by police.
Los Angeles and San Diego, the two largest school districts in the state, home to about 660,000 students, recently instructed teachers to base academic grades on whether students learned what was expected of them during the course, rather than punishing them for behavior, work habits and missed deadlines. The policy encourages teachers to give students the opportunity to revise essays or retake tests to show that they have achieved learning goals, rather than setting rigid deadlines.
“He teaches students that failure is part of the learning curve. We’re falling. We get up again. We are learning from the feedback we have received, ”said Alison Yoshimoto-Toweri, Chief Scientist at LA Unified.
Traditional grading has often been used to “justify and provide unequal educational opportunities based on a student’s race or grade,” according to a letter sent by Yoshimoto-Toweri and Pedro A. Garcia, senior executive director of the academic division, to school principals. month.
“As we continue to use age-old grading methods, we inadvertently perpetuate achievement and opportunity gaps by rewarding our most privileged students and punishing those who don’t,” their letter said, citing educational assessment consultant Joe Feldman.
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The urgent need for change became painfully apparent during the school closures due to the pandemic, as teachers were trying to figure out how to properly assess students who are experiencing an unprecedented disruption in their education. Some of the problems the students faced were unique to the pandemic. Others have been present for a long time and were more visible.
Suddenly, teachers saw from the inside out the overcrowded home conditions of some low-income students. They saw some teens caring for younger siblings while trying to do their own work, and witnessed the impact of the digital divide as students with intermittent internet access struggled to enter the classroom.
“The COVID pandemic has just highlighted a trend in the country to address inequalities in student learning,” said Carol Alexander, director of intervention and support for LA Unified. “But these different learning circumstances have always been present.”
Feldman, a former teacher and administrator who wrote Evaluation Based on Equity, has worked with school districts across the country for several years to review grading policies. In the October and November of the 2020/21 school year, he suddenly found himself receiving a “tidal wave” of calls from the districts as teachers publish their progress reports and realize that D and F are skyrocketing.
“Our traditional grading methods have always harmed our students, who have traditionally been under-educated,” Feldman said. “But now that the number of students affected is much higher, people have become more aware of this and were ready to tackle this problem.”
Several school districts across California, reflecting a diverse demographic, are taking steps to revise grades with an eye to equality. Some have formally adopted the new policy, while others offer training and support to teachers who wish to give different grades.
Last year, Latin American-majority West Contra Costa Unified issued a memo urging high school teachers to give students a five-day grace period to turn in work and eliminate zero in grades.
Placer Union High School District, where the majority of students are white, ordered teachers to base grades on “credible evidence of the student’s knowledge, not … evidence that could be influenced by latent teacher bias and does not reflect the student’s circumstances.”
In Los Angeles, the district began teaching methods to teachers, including basing grades on students meeting academic standards. But faced with a flood of double and double grades during school closings, officials quickly changed policies, giving students more time to work.
A recent LA Times analysis of LA Unified grades and grading data showed how much grades fell during school closures for students in Los Angeles. The pre-pandemic assessment gap between black and Hispanic students and white and Asian peers widened to 21 percentage points.
There were also significant gaps in the number of students meeting the University of California and California State University admission requirements that students must complete certain courses with a C or higher. During the 2018-19 academic year, about 59% of students met the requirements. For the 2022 class, about 46% of students are on track to meet the requirements – with a gap of 17 percentage points or more between black and Hispanic students and white and Asian students. Officials said they expect more high school students to meet the requirements by the end of the school year.
Despite the significant drop in grades, educators said the pandemic also showed how giving students additional opportunities has enabled many to improve their grades. In the fall of the 2020/21 school year, nearly 15,000 grades were improved after the district ordered teachers to give students a few extra weeks to work.
In a recent guideline, teachers have been advised to base academic grades on “learning levels demonstrated in quality work, not work done” and proficiency in standards.
“The fact that I answered the test question incorrectly today does not mean that I do not have the opportunity to learn it tomorrow and retake the test,” said Yoshimoto-Taueri. “The practice of peer grades is consistent with the understanding that, as humans, we learn at different rates and in different ways, and we need multiple opportunities to do so.”
District guidelines state that academic grades should not be based on attendance, including unjustified absences, being late for work, participation, or behavior that may be reflected in individual “citizenship” or “work habits” scores that do not count. the student’s average score.
Students with D and F grades should also be able to pass a partial grade to have extra time to improve their grade or retake a course for a higher grade or credit recovery.
Gary Garcia, principal of John Marshall High School in Los Feliz, said many teachers have been striving for a fairer assessment for years. But moving from traditional grades to grading based on whether students have internalized the standards is not easy.
“This is a tough climb that is difficult at this time of the pandemic given the challenges teachers face,” Garcia said. “But I think over time, over the next few years, we will see more and more schools implement assessment and learning.”
Gavin Tierney, assistant professor of secondary education in Fullerton, California, who teaches aspiring educators how to assess students fairly, agreed that asking teachers to fundamentally change their grading approach, which often mirrors what they experienced in school, requires additional training. … and support.
“It’s hard to rethink how we measure and rate at a deeper level,” Tierney said. “We can’t just tell teachers to do this job. Because many times they try to figure out how to pass the lesson. “
In San Diego, county officials said they were forced to make changes following calls for social justice following Floyd’s death and the exposure of a pandemic to long-standing racial inequality.
“Our goal should not be to simply recreate the existing system before March 13, 2020. Rather, we must strive to rediscover as a more advanced system focused on eradicating systemic racism in our society, ”the board said last summer. …
As in Los Angeles, changes in San Diego include giving students the opportunity to review work and re-take tests. Teachers should remove factors such as behavior, punctuality, effort and work habits from academic grades and translate them into a student’s citizenship assessment, which is often taken into account in sports and extracurricular activities, said Nicole DeWitt, the district’s executive director. leadership and training office.
Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy research at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, said he thought some of the changes seemed reasonable – such as allowing students to retake tests. But he is skeptical about others, including removing timing and behavior from academic grades.
“The questions that are being asked here certainly deserve attention,” Hess said. “What worries me is that by calling certain practices fair and assuming they are right, we run the risk of creating systems in which we tell children it’s okay to turn in late. The timing doesn’t matter … And I don’t think it sets children up for successful careers or citizenship. “
Thomas Gasky, author of At Your Mark: Challenging Scoring and Reporting Rules, said the United States is lagging behind other countries in modernizing its grading system.
In Canada, for example, students typically receive separate grades for academic achievement, participation, punctuality, and effort. This makes each grade more meaningful than the grade, which is a jumble of factors that can vary from teacher to teacher.
“We in the United States are more traditionally bound in grading than any other developed country in the world,” Gasky said. Reform of the grading system is not about diminishing expectations; “It’s about making the assessments meaningful and fair,” he said.
“I want us to celebrate excellence,” Gasky said. “I just want it to be done in a way that is justified, and not play one child against another.”