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Schools Are Ditching Homework, Deadlines in Favor of ‘Equitable Grading’
Approach aims to measure mastery and account for hardships at home; teachers say some students game the system
By Sara, Randazzo, WSJ
April 26, 2023 5:30 am ET
Las Vegas high-school English teacher Laura Jeanne Penrod initially thought the grading changes at her school district made sense. Under the overhaul, students are given more chances to prove they have mastered a subject without being held to arbitrary deadlines, in recognition of challenges some children have outside school.
Soon after the system was introduced, however, Ms. Penrod said her 11th-grade honors students realized the new rules minimized the importance of homework to their final grades, leading many to forgo the brainstorming and rough drafts required ahead of writing a persuasive essay. Some didn’t turn in the essay at all, knowing they could redo it later.
“They’re relying on children having intrinsic motivation, and that is the furthest thing from the truth for this age group,” said Ms. Penrod, a teacher for 17 years.
The Clark County School District where Ms. Penrod works—the nation’s fifth-largest school system—has joined dozens of districts in California, Iowa, Virginia and other states in moves toward “equitable grading” with varying degrees of buy-in. Leaders in the 305,000-student Clark County district said the new approach was about making grades a more accurate reflection of a student’s progress and giving opportunities to all learners.
Equitable grading can take different forms, but the systems aim to measure whether a student knows the classroom material by the end of a term without penalties for behavior, which, under the theory, can introduce bias. Homework is typically played down and students are given multiple opportunities to complete tests and assignments.
Proponents of the approach, including paid consultants, say it benefits students with after-school responsibilities, such as a job or caring for siblings, as well as those with learning disabilities. Traditional grading methods, they say, favor those with a stable home life and more hands-on parents.
“We’re giving children hope and the opportunity to learn right up until [the class is] officially over,” said Michael Rinaldi, the principal at Westhill High School in Stamford, Conn., where a group of teachers began exploring different grading systems four years ago.
Laura Jeanne Penrod posts a planning board like many other high-school teachers, though under equitable grading, students are given multiple opportunities to finish tests and assignments.
Ms. Penrod says equitable grading assumes more intrinsic motivation than she typically associates with high-school students.
In Las Vegas, some teachers and students say the changes have led to gaming the system and a lack of accountability.
“If you go to a job in real life, you can’t pick and choose what tasks you want to do and only do the quote big ones,” said Alyson Henderson, a high-school English teacher there. Lessons drag on now, she said, because students can turn in work until right before grades are due.
“We’re really setting students up for a false sense of reality,” Ms. Henderson said.
Equitable grading still typically awards As through Fs, but the criteria are overhauled. Homework, in-class discussions and other practice work, called formative assessments, are weighted at between 10% and 30%. The bulk of a grade is earned through what are known as summative assessments, such as tests or essays.
Extra credit is banned—no more points for bringing in school supplies—as is grading for behavior, which includes habits such as attendance.
The scale starts at 49% or 50% rather than zero, meant to keep a student’s grade from sinking so low from a few missed assignments that they feel they can’t recover and give up.
Samuel Hwang, a senior at Ed W. Clark High School in Las Vegas, has spoken out against the grading changes, saying they provide incentives for poor work habits. A straight-A student headed to the University of Chicago next year, Samuel said even classmates in honors and Advanced Placement classes are prone to skip class now unless there is an exam.
Las Vegas high-school student Samuel Hwang, shown with his twin sister, Grace, says the grading changes take away incentives to attend class. PHOTO: SAMUEL HWANG
“There’s an apathy that pervades the entire classroom,” he said.
Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara told the school board last fall that successfully shifting the system will take years, as the district’s 18,000 teachers shed the traditional grading mind-set.
Erin Spata, a science teacher at Westhill High in Connecticut who favors the change, said her students are moving away from constantly asking how many points an assignment will be worth and instead understand the importance of practice work, whether or not it is counted toward the final grade.
Many districts using equitable grading are being trained by Joe Feldman, an Oakland, Calif.-based former teacher and administrator who wrote a 2018 book on grading for equity. The book’s concepts build on research into mastery- or standards-based learning.
Albuquerque Public Schools last year signed a $687,500 contract for Mr. Feldman’s Crescendo Education Group to help support 200 teachers in a two-year pilot.
Bias can come into play when teachers use a grade as an incentive for behavior, said Tanya Kuhnee, a teacher-support specialist who is helping implement the Albuquerque program. Maybe a student is late because they had to bring their sibling to school. “That has nothing to do with whether they can write a competent, argumentative essay,” Ms. Kuhnee said.
Mr. Feldman said he had worked with around 50 public-school districts since 2013, including those in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City, and smaller districts throughout California, Minnesota and elsewhere. Interest grew during the pandemic, he said.
“Classrooms are pressure cookers,” he said. With daily deadlines, cheating off classmates can be ubiquitous. “They’re now able to relax, say, ‘I can have a bad day,’ and spend more time on things. It changes the way the classroom feels.”
A prepandemic study by Crescendo Group showed a decrease in Ds and Fs under equitable grading—and a decrease in the number of As awarded.
Clark County said in the first year of the change, fewer students across racial demographics received an F.
Sarah Lloyd, a middle-school science teacher in Los Angeles, has spent two years studying equitable grading and is still working on the right balance between giving students space to be self-paced and keeping her science lessons moving. “You have to teach differently,” she said. Her students are starting to “value learning more than points” and have less test anxiety, she said.
Ms. Lloyd said she understood why teachers push back against mandated grading changes.
“I think that it is easier to convert people incrementally,” Ms. Lloyd said. “It’s not something you can shift all at once.”