Improving Educational Equity: Assessing States’ Efforts to Close Achievement Gaps

This article is part of a series focusing on achieving educational equity. To get an overview, check out the initial post, as well as discussions on school finance, student discipline, advanced education, school closures, and homework.

Grading student work is a crucial aspect with significant implications for both students and educational institutions. Despite its importance, student grading has often been neglected in teacher training programs and professional development sessions, assuming little complexity or a universal understanding of effective practices.

Thanks to advocates like Joe Feldman and Douglas Reeves, the spotlight is now on this overlooked issue. They emphasize that grading serves as a vital communication tool, setting expectations for students and conveying crucial information to various stakeholders including parents, higher education institutions, and future employers. However, traditional grading methods can be fraught with biases, including racial biases, prompting a push for “equitable grading” to eliminate these disparities.

While the focus on equitable grading is commendable, its implementation has been fragmented, inadvertently leading to unintended consequences, particularly the lowering of academic standards.

A recent white paper authored by Meredith Coffey and Adam Tyner, part of the “Think Again” series, provides comprehensive insights into this issue. The following table from their paper illustrates the breadth of the topic under discussion:

Table 1: Equity-oriented grading policies

Table 1: Equity-oriented grading policies

How can school districts ensure “educational equity” in grading while upholding high standards and addressing bias? Let’s revisit the key principles identified in this series:

  • When striving for equity, prioritize raising standards rather than lowering them.
  • Focus on bridging the gap between financially advantaged students and their disadvantaged peers, not between high-achieving and low-achieving students.
  • Concentrate equity efforts on socioeconomic status rather than race.

Enhancing Grading Practices Towards Higher Standards

The essence of this issue lies in recognizing the crucial role student effort plays in learning, as elucidated in our homework post. Especially at advanced grade levels, students need to engage actively with challenging material to master it. Rigorous grading encourages diligent work habits, with various research studies, including a study by Seth Gershenson published by Fordham, affirming the positive impact of tough grading on learning outcomes, irrespective of students’ backgrounds. Easing the path to receiving high grades can hinder genuine academic growth.

Notably, there is a prevalent trend of grade inflation, highlighted by multiple studies revealing its perpetuation. This phenomenon predates the pandemic and has exacerbated during the Covid era, partly due to relaxed standards during remote learning. As efforts for equitable grading gained momentum post the 2020 racial reckoning, institutions encountered challenges in accurately signaling students’ academic readiness, mirrored in heightened high school graduation rates alongside diminished graduation requirements.

Hence, critical examination of grading practices is imperative to prevent standards dilution, such as reconsidering policies like the “50 percent rule” and prohibitions on grading homework or penalizing late submissions, which inadvertently foster academic complacency among students.

There are other grading reforms focused on maintaining high standards while curbing bias, as elaborated below.

Reforming Grading Practices for High Achievement

Advocates of policies like the 50 percent rule often argue that zero grades demotivate struggling students. However, blanket policies affect all students, including high achievers who may exploit leniency to reduce effort. Empowering teachers to make nuanced grade adjustments offers a more effective alternative, guiding students towards academic redemption based on individual progress.

Addressing Bias in Grading

Supporting grading reforms that uphold high expectations and combat bias is paramount. The prevalence of unintentional biases based on students’ backgrounds underscores the necessity for strategies like blind grading, which can mitigate subjective influences. Clear rubrics and stringent criteria for A-level work, akin to programs like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, underscore the importance of fair assessment practices. Notably, eliminating racial and ethnic disparities in grades requires concurrently addressing broader achievement disparities.

* * *

The focus on grading reform serves as a pivotal contribution, emphasizing the need for structured approaches to grading practices. Prioritizing high standards while combatting biases is essential for educational leaders to navigate this complex landscape.

Michael J. Petrilli serves as president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and executive editor of Education Next.

This content was originally published on, an outlet of the Fordham Institute.

The post Doing Educational Equity Right: Grading appeared first on Education Next.

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