Report: ‘Grading for Equity’ Harms Students

Brendan Clarey | February 29, 2024

(Chalkboard News) — A new policy brief states that “equitable” grading policies that rely on lowering academic standards ultimately hurt the students they purportedly help.

The research released Wednesday morning by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute challenged some of the claims often made about equitable grading practices and said they require greater scrutiny. The brief also said it’s time to adopt some reforms that promote equitable grading without sacrificing rigor.

Adam Tyner, national research director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the brief’s co-author, told Chalkboard News that some equitable grading practices have been around for some time while others were born out of the pandemic.

According to the brief, equitable grading practices include policies that prevent teachers from giving zeros to students, lowering scores for late assignments or cheating and changing grading scales. 

During the pandemic, schools looked to new forms of change, including “hold harmless” policies that prevented students from receiving grades below what they had before remote schooling and waiving graduation requirements, the brief found. 

Tyner said advocates behind the grading changes do actually want to help students, but what matters is how the policies are implemented and what affect they have in the real world. In some cases, despite claims that new grading systems are more accurate, they will inflate grades, Tyner said. 

Joe Feldman, an advocate for change who wrote “Grading for Equity,” said it shouldn’t be a problem to hand out higher grades.

“Meeting an external standard, like writing a persuasive essay or passing the driver’s license test, or even exceeding it is not like taking a limited resource, like gold or oil, which fluctuates in value depending on how much there is,” Feldman wrote in 2018

The brief’s other co-author, Meredith Coffey, wrote in a concurrent review that high grades do actually fluctuate in value depending on how many there are because handing out A’s devalues their worth for exemplary work.

The brief argues that some reforms like anonymized grading and clear rubrics could be added to the traditional grading system to create more equitable grading without sacrificing high standards. 

“Using rubrics is something that a lot of times grading reformers will promote,” Tyner said. “That helps teachers combat bias and make grading more fair upfront if students know what they’re being graded on.”

Tyner also said getting rid of extra credit, a staple of the traditional grading system, would allow for more equitable grades without giving some students a pass.

“What grading reformers have not understood is that high standards, rigorous grading, and student accountability are the incarnation of high expectations,” the brief said. “Yet several of the core ‘equity grading’ reforms — including not grading homework, allowing unlimited test retakes or assignment revisions, and prohibiting penalties for late work and cheating — weaken accountability for students.”

Tyner said while the intentions are usually good, the result of these policies are harmful for students. 

“We hear a lot about high expectations for all students, but often, unfortunately, the implementation of those high expectations by administration is happy talk,” Tyner said. “Students are able to perceive when they’re not being held accountable.”

For example, Tyner said that when schools don’t lower grades for late work, it encourages students to procrastinate. And when administrators implement minimum grading, where students can’t get a zero for not turning in work or cheating on it, the underlying idea is that unearned points are more fair, Tyner said. 

“It’s really absurd,” Tyner added. “The students perceive that immediately.”  

And the research mentioned in the report suggests that students with teachers who are more strict learn more than those who are lenient. The research also shows that students who are giving a grade without earning it are worse off in the long run, Tyner added. 

Tyner said changing grading practices in the name of equity actually does more harm for those it’s trying to help.

“Lower-performing students need that accountability more than anyone else,” Tyner said. “If they’re not getting it at home, they need to get it from school. So if school removes all of those accountability mechanisms, it’s not a big surprise to me that it hurts them more than anyone else and exacerbates those inequities.”