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HomeOpinionOp-EdsThe Dilemma of Grading: Equity Versus Tradition

The Dilemma of Grading: Equity Versus Tradition

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Two students from UC Irvine enroll in the same entry-level, Writing 39A course; however, both come from vastly different backgrounds and academic institutions that provide different resources.

The first student comes from a high-income community and attended a high school with well-funded academic programs and plentiful resources. They have already been taught the foundations of writing a compelling essay. The second student comes from a low-income community and attended a local public school with less funding and received a lower quality of education. They did not have access to resources such as newer textbooks, school supplies or academic tutors. At first, the second student did poorly on their writing assignments while the first student excelled. However, both students were writing equally compelling essays by the end of the quarter. Even though both students finished the course at the same skill-level, the first student ended up with a significantly higher grade in the class because they had an initial advantage. 

Grading should reflect the learning outcome — it should not simply consist of points and percentages. With our current education system, the quality of a student’s educational background can significantly impact the overall grade they receive. In recent years, many educators have supported the idea of shifting away from traditional point-based grading to a more qualitative assessment of a student’s academic progress and growth. Qualitative assessments can take the form of rubrics that judge a student’s demonstrated competency in a particular skill.

This new style of grading is a necessary change in our flawed and inequitable educational system, which disproportionately puts lower-income and typically Black and Latinx students at a disadvantage while benefiting higher-income and typically white students. This trend is largely due to funding inequality in differing school districts.

The Los Angeles Unified (LA Unified) and San Diego Unified school districts have recently instructed teachers to revise their grading methods. They suggested that academic grades should reflect how well a student has met learning goals and that students should not be penalized for behavior, attendance, participation, work habits or missed deadlines. Deadline grace periods and opportunities to revise or improve on essays and tests are encouraged as well. 

In a letter from LA Unified’s academic office, educational grading consultant Joe Feldman wrote, “by continuing to use century-old grading practices, we inadvertently perpetuate achievement and opportunity gaps, rewarding our most privileged students and punishing those who are not.”

This is a significant step in promoting more equitable grading practices. As the state’s two largest school districts with over 660,000 students combined, LA and San Diego Unified can act as leaders in a movement to encourage more districts and counties to adopt equitable policies.

Although traditional grading has always fostered a gap between economic classes and racial groups, the pandemic has accelerated and amplified these inequities. As the number of students in need increased, so did the number of students from LA and San Diego school districts who received D’s and F’s.

A recent LA Times analysis of LA Unified’s assessment cited that during the 2018-19 school year, around 59% of students met the University of California and California State University admissions requirements of a C or better in certain courses. For the class of 2022, that statistic decreased to 46% of students. The analysis noted a gap of 17 percentage points or more between Black and Latinx students and white and Asian students.

In addition to bridging gaps between race and class, the new grading system will also foster students’ motivation to learn. Point-based grading systems turn learning into a conversation entirely about points, detracting from the actual content. Systems, such as the one LA and San Diego Unified districts suggest, will encourage students to think more critically and creatively. Students will be assessed on their growth as opposed to mastery, and their process as opposed to their product. 

While there are clear learning and equity-related benefits to a new grading system, these changes will be difficult to implement universally because the U.S. education system is so grounded in tradition. Teachers and parents alike have expressed skepticism about its effectiveness in motivating students and their concern about possible negative repercussions on a student’s work habits, especially with less strict deadlines. Ultimately, grading reforms work to protect the quality of learning and increase opportunities for academic success. More school districts should be inspired to model themselves after the new policy that the LA and San Diego Unified Districts have adopted.

Erika Cao is an Opinion Intern for the fall 2021 quarter. She can be reached at caoea@uci.edu.