Grades, Equity, and the Grammar of School
After observing the “shattering effect [of grades] on the ‘bottom’ group” of students, Merla Sparks got permission from her principal to trial a gradeless system with five classes of students who were grouped at the ‘bottom’ of her school. Sparks quickly found that “Imaginative ideas spilled out all over the paper when the student knew it wouldn’t be returned ‘bleeding’ with teacher stabs.”
Spark’s experiment captures my motivation to want to go ‘gradeless’: to foster a sense of enjoyment and pleasure in the work itself, especially for students where grades will reinforce an idea that they are less-than.
Now, Sparks still needed to enter a grade on the official record, but she did not put grades on the report cards that went home with students. When she offered students the chance to see the final grade, only 3 wanted to. Sparks concluded her piece for the NCTE’s The English Journal by writing, “Probably in the future a more flexible grading system in all grades and subjects will be commonplace.”
Sparks authored her piece fifty years ago in 1967.
Teachers lead a lot of change only to be bound by “grammar of school”, or the “organisational regularities” that largely lie outside of the control of individuals (David Tyack & Larry Cuban). Like Sparks, most teachers who aim to go gradeless in their classrooms still have to report grades because of the grammar of school.
According to news reports, some schools like Sanborn seem to be going completely gradeless: “Instead of letter grades at the end of a semester, teachers make a point of giving specific feedback throughout.” However, in a five page document, the school outlines what looks like a pretty traditional grading system, where “A students’ final grade is based on the total points earned over the entire length of the course.” They even compute a class rank and the end of grades 11 and 12.
I’m not here to argue that we should give up in the face of the grammar of school. When we strive to take ownership of as much of the assessment process as we can, our students only benefit. However, I think we need to also keep our eye on the an important equity issue that emerges when we do need to finally enter a grade on a report. In a dialog about exploring new practices in grading, Nick Carbone writes:
…ultimately, when grades are recorded and sent to the registrar, that ownership is lost and people will make of them what they will, which usually means a whole different set of assumptions about how to read them, what they mean, and what they are for. Unfortunately for students, they live more with those other assumptions than they do with our pedagogy.
As we de-emphasize grades in our classroom, we still have a responsibility to make the larger grammar of schooling intelligible to our students so they can see a clear connection between our assessment and the numbers that will follow them around. While I am happy that only 3 of Merla Sparks’s students asked to see a final grade, it’s also important that students walk away with the social competence that’s necessary to approach a teacher to discuss their grades. Students from middle-class families are more likely to develop the kinds of social competence to “actively manage interactions in institutional settings” as a result of what Annette Lareau calls the ‘concerted cultivation’ approach to child-rearing. So if the relation between class work and grades becomes opaque, it’s most likely to harm those children who are already at a socioeconomic disadvantage.
Even if K-12 schools somehow manage to eschew grades completely, it’s likely that colleges and employers will use other kinds of data to sort and rank. Imagine a digital portfolio system in the hands of Pearson. So much of our data is already ‘weaponized’ beyond our control (Cathy O’Neil) and black boxed to the point that the process is unintelligible to us (Frank Pasquale).
Some people take comfort in the fact that Google’s Laszlo Bock has ditched the focus on grades in the hiring process: “Google famously used to ask everyone for a transcript and G.P.A.’s and test scores, but we don’t anymore, unless you’re just a few years out of school. We found that they don’t predict anything.”
Yet, according to Google’s diversity record, men hold 79% of leadership positions and only 2% of employees are Black. In other words, dropping the focus on grades does not directly lead to equity. Grades are part of what work to create the illusion that we live in a meritocracy, and so when people like Bock claim to have hit on practices that really help to discover merit, we also need to treat those practices with skepticism.
I do not mean to strike a pessimistic note, but rather to argue that we need to go ahead and do what’s pedagogically best for our students. They can’t wait. And part of what’s pedagogically best should include teaching them to navigate the grammar of the larger system.
In my own practice as a middle school English teacher, I try to grade much less. Students write several pieces, receive feedback, and select which pieces to revise and have graded. During the writing process, we use progressions that we adapt to our needs so that students can self-assess their work and make plans to improve it. In practice this means that I only grade twice a semester, which means that we hardly ever talk about grades at all, but when it’s time for report cards, students know exactly where they stand.
I think it’s important to teach kids the kind of language for discussing their academic work that doesn’t resort to asking, so what’s my grade? When kids conference with each other, I hear them talk about their transitions, topic sentences, and depth of analysis. Yet, as we have to live with the grammar of grading, it’s also important that students have a sense of ownership over those numbers that will follow them around. For some struggling students, it might actually be important to know that they are very close to receiving a B if they take the time to revise an assignment.
Can we look forward to a ‘more flexible grading system’ in the near future? I hope so. But given that we live in a society where corporations turn bits of our lives into data points, we’ll need to help students navigate the new grammars of school.