What Many Advocates Get Wrong About ‘Equitable Grading’

Frederick M. Hess
10 min readJan 30, 2024

Joe Feldman is a former high school teacher, principal, and district administrator and the author of Grading for Equity, now in its second edition. He’s also the CEO of Crescendo Education Group, which works with schools and systems on grading practices. Well, Joe reached out after a recent RHSU post in which I expressed my concerns about “equitable grading.” While we haven’t been in touch in a long time, I’ve known Joe since I TA’d a class he was in at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education 30 years ago. We wound up having a pretty fruitful exchange that, with Joe’s blessing, I thought worth sharing.

— Rick

Joe: Rick, you’ve written recently about the harms of grade inflation and how a primary cause is educators who, influenced by “equitable grading,” compromise rigor and award students higher grades than they deserve. As someone who has researched equitable grading, written about it, and worked with hundreds of teachers to understand and implement the practices for it over a decade, I wanted to share some thoughts and explain that there are some common misunderstandings about equitable grading. One of the biggest is that the goal is simply to raise grades. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, a goal of equitable grading is actually to reduce grade inflation.

Rick: Thanks for reaching out. OK, I’m intrigued. While I’ve heard a lot of advocates and educators talk about equitable grading, I don’t recall any raising concerns about grade inflation. They’ve mostly urged policies that are less stringent and more forgiving, while sounding skeptical about traditional norms like hard work and personal responsibility. And, as I think you know, I rather like those traditional values. I fear that easy grading sends the wrong signal to students, gives a false sense of confidence to parents, and makes it tougher for teachers to maintain rigorous expectations. So, I’m delighted to hear you say that equitable grading isn’t at odds with all that. Tell me more.

Joe: OK, so the bottom line is that you and I both want the same thing: We want to be confident that the integrity of a student’s grade isn’t compromised by a teacher’s opinion or emotions about a student. Teachers can be tempted to reduce expectations for some students out of a heartfelt empathy for those with challenging backgrounds or circumstances. The student whose family is unhoused, has responsibilities to care for younger siblings, has ill family members, or lives amid daily violence all deserve care and support. Of course, we want our teachers to be compassionate and caring for each student, particularly those who face struggles outside their control, but unfortunately, teachers’ empathy can be misplaced when they give students grades that are higher than their true course content understanding.

Equitable grading presumes that our students and their families deserve dignity and respect, which means we must always be honest and accurate in our communication about where they are in their learning. One of the least equitable things we can do is mislead students by assigning them inflated grades and false descriptions of their performance, because doing so sets them up for a rude awakening and possible future failures. Equitable grading means accurately describing their achievement and channeling empathy for students — not into reduced expectations but through actions that truly improve their learning: additional supports, relevant and engaging curriculum and instruction, and multiple pathways to access and demonstrate learning.

Rick: OK, so I’m mostly nodding along here. I get honest and accurate information as a sign of respect for students and families. And I buy the problems you describe with easy grades and misleading feedback. And yet I’m used to hearing such concerns brushed off by those who champion equitable grading. So, what’s up? Why is the common sense you’re offering here not more commonly on display?

Joe: It’s unavoidable that as ideas spread, they get misinterpreted and misapplied, but I think there are a few things going on. First, the issue is deeper than people first realize. Grading is much more complex than it seems at first blush, implicating fields of pedagogy, adolescent development, and concepts of statistical validity. But in order to fully explain the complexity, I’ll have to expand on that in another post.

Second, sometimes we who advocate or implement equitable grading don’t explain ourselves enough to skeptical observers. Many well-meaning district and school administrators can make the mistake of quickly enacting equitable grading policies without meaningfully engaging and educating their teachers or student and parent communities. In order for equitable grading to work, we have to explain the theory and research — including teachers’ classroom-based evidence — demonstrating both the harms and inaccuracies of traditional grading practices as well as the benefits of equitable grading practices, and then provide teachers the support to implement them effectively.

But it’s also about how people receive these ideas. Changes to grading can elicit strong concerns and emotions, and the word “equity” itself is so charged right now that it’s easy to make assumptions about equitable grading before it’s understood. Every time I speak with educators, parents, or students, I realize that while grading and equity are both hot topics, we’re not used to talking about the deep complexities of either. So if we’re ever going to understand their intersection, then we’re obligated to approach equitable grading with curiosity and to make sure we don’t propagate misunderstandings or half-understandings.

Rick: That’s all fair enough. But a lot of the practices I’ve seen presented as “equitable grading” — by prominent advocates and big school systems — don’t seem to reflect your commitment to honesty-for-all. I’m thinking of policies that offer endless retakes or put an end to graded homework. I’ve had plenty of educators quietly complain to me that this stuff is a recipe for lowering expectations, permitting students to coast, and making diligent students feel like suckers. Am I getting this wrong? What do you think of these practices?

Joe: You cite perfect examples of where equitable grading ideas have gotten warped by superficial understanding or overzealous policymakers. Let’s take your example of “endless retakes,” which I have a hunch is hyperbolic shorthand. When we grade equitably, we offer students the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. If we agree that the principle of a retake or redo is a good one, then teachers need to figure out the most effective answers to a series of challenging questions: How can we create and implement retakes efficiently? What is necessary before a student gets a retake? When can they be administered and by whom? When is it time to move on? How can we make sure that the retake grade doesn’t have a “ceiling” score or that we don’t average a student’s scores — both of which would misrepresent their current and accurate understanding and would punish students who struggled but ultimately demonstrated understanding?

Another example: With equitable grading, a student’s homework performance isn’t included in their grade calculation, and therefore some misconstrue equitable grading as de-valuing homework. On the contrary, meaningful homework can serve a vital role in learning: practice. Teachers should give feedback on homework and even record a student’s work in the gradebook, but if we agree that homework is the opportunity for students to practice and make mistakes, then we undermine those purposes if we include their performance on that homework in the grade calculation. No one would argue that a runner’s time in a race should incorporate their practice times, so why would we believe our grades are accurate and fair when we include students’ performance during their practice?

There’s no coasting in equitable grading. In fact, teachers tell us — and students complain but appreciate — that equitable grading raises expectations. Rather than take a test and be done with it, equitable grading normalizes subsequent learning through additional practice. In traditional grading, whether students learn from homework is irrelevant so long as it’s completed — regardless of whether it was completed by the student, their tutor, or the internet. In equitable grading, successful learning depends on students learning from their homework. After all, no one counts the free throws you make during practice and adds that score to the game score. But if you don’t practice free throws, you won’t make them during the game. That means that teachers need to help students understand the value of homework by having clear ties between what’s on the homework and what’s on the test and to incorporate consequences for not doing homework that aren’t grade-based, like requiring extra time or providing supports.

Rick: OK. Love the point about not getting extra points for practice performance. While I wouldn’t say I’m convinced, I’m certainly a whole lot more sympathetic to what you’re talking about than to what I’ve generally encountered as “equitable grading.” But I think that’s partly because what you’re describing sounds like it could just as easily be tagged “honest grading” or “rigorous grading.” Given that, I’m just curious: Why call it “equitable grading”?

Joe: You’re not the first to suggest that I should call this something else, like “common-sense grading” or “accurate grading” or “fair grading” to avoid the political radioactivity of “equitable grading.” But I believe it’s important to call it what it is — improvements to traditional grading with an explicit awareness of the history of grading, and schooling, in this country — and to correct ways in which our traditional grading practices disproportionately benefit or harm groups of students.

Interestingly, people can mistakenly assume that it’s the historically underserved students who are the primary recipients of grade inflation. In fact, research and my organization’s experiences working with teachers suggest that grade inflation and false reporting of student achievement occurs just as frequently — and leads to a greater number of inaccurate A’s — among students who have more supports, whose families are of higher income, and who attend higher-performing schools. In these circumstances, grade inflation is not generally a result of empathy, but is instead fueled by a version of Ted Sizer’s famed Horace’s Compromise: Powerful parents support a school — and possibly pay expensive tuition — with the expectation that their child will receive high grades and be maximally competitive for admission to the most selective colleges. The good news is that while teachers may have little influence to counteract the intense pressures of families, they have nearly complete authority to improve their grading in order to correct the harms of traditional grading and to align the best teaching with the best grading.

Another example: In most classrooms, teachers include in a grade not only a student’s performance on assessments — what a student knows — but also whether a student completed homework, came to class on time, raised their hand in a discussion, brought in a signed syllabus, and everything and anything else that happens in a classroom; in other words, what a student does. The result of this incorporation of both academic and nonacademic criteria into a grade — what Robert Marzano has called “omnibus grading” — is that the accuracy of grades becomes compromised, and it’s unclear what a grade represents: The student who showed A-level understanding on an assessment but handed it in late receives a B, while the student who showed B-level understanding on the assessment but completed an unrelated extra-credit assignment receives an A. Now, imagine the complex formulas in many teachers’ gradebooks — 30 percent tests, 25 percent homework, 25 percent participation, 15 percent group work, and 5 percent extra credit — and the dozens of entries in the categories, and grades become a stew of so many diverse inputs of student performance that in the quest to mean everything a grade means nothing and introduces both inaccuracy and confusion. Teachers can make grades more accurate by reducing the “noise” of data so the grade is simply, and entirely, a description of a student’s understanding of course content.

Rick: So, let me see if I have this right. While I’ve generally found equitable grading presented as measures that seem calculated to lessen rigor and “decenter” traditional academic norms, you’re telling me that it should be about ensuring a rigorous, consistent bar for all students?

Joe: Exactly. In fact, it has implications that are surprising to some. While most talk of equitable grading focuses on low-income students and children of color, including behavior and nonacademic criteria in grades tends to inflate the grades of students who have the most resources and are best able to accommodate, adhere to, and comply with a teacher’s expected behaviors. The student who has a stay-at-home parent, higher income, greater fluency in English, and more academic support — perhaps a tutor — is more likely to earn all the points from the nonacademic “assignments” of getting to class on time, completing every homework assignment correctly, contributing to every discussion, and satisfying every extra-credit opportunity, whether points are awarded for bringing in tissues for the classroom or a ticket receipt from a local museum exhibit. In this way, if a student has less understanding of content, but can compensate for that deficiency by satisfying other categories, then their grade will be inflated. In several studies, including Fordham’s 2018 Report on Grade Inflation, grade inflation was more pronounced at schools with fewer students from low-income families. Plus, when students’ nonacademic behavior — categories such as “participation” or “effort” — are included in the grade, teachers award points to students have particular personality types: those “who appear attentive and aggressive during class and who therefore receive higher grades than others, not because they have learned more material but because they have learned to act like they are learning more.” I’m sure we agree that a student’s personality type can’t be accurately assessed and certainly shouldn’t be included in the grade.

We can make our grades more accurate and fair for all students by excluding nonacademic criteria, dampening subjective biases, and reducing the impact of resource disparities.

Rick: All right, my friend. You’ve got me interested. I’m not confident that schools can do this responsibly. And I’m concerned that the zeitgeist around “equitable grading” is so far from what you — the author of the go-to book! — has to say. But let’s get into all that at greater length. If you’re game, we’ll dig into all this further.

Joe: Absolutely!

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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Frederick M. Hess

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.