By David E. Kirkland
Grading, in its most basic form, is a system of power entrenched within a larger power structure. Its roots burrow deep, and its implications touch every student who steps foot inside a classroom. Yet, beneath the veneer of scores and percentages lies a deeper truth: Grading often mirrors and perpetuates societal inequities.
In this light, it is visible how grading functions to stratify students based on perceived performance differences that primarily reflect a student’s proximity to or distance from privilege. The act of grading, thus, has this other effect: to gatekeep, to include and exclude people based, too often, on arbitrary metrics that have little to do with teaching and learning. Students with resources, a stable home life, or access to extra tutoring are often at an advantage regardless of instruction, while those who do not find themselves at a perpetual disadvantage.
This disparity in grading doesn’t necessarily reflect a measure of a student’s aptitude or effort but rather the socio-economic privileges some students are accorded. For more vulnerable students, grading feels punitive, evoking such heightened feelings of distress that many of them are left paralyzed by avoidable anxieties around even the most basic of tasks.
For many others, the joy of learning is lost, overshadowed by the anxiety of grades, turning the educational experience into a stressful experience dominated by the fear of judgment. This condition limits learning rather than accurately representing it. Instead, grades come to reflect the stress and anxiety one feels when being evaluated.
Psychological research shows that people act differently when closely watched or judged. This scrutiny can trigger stress responses in the body, releasing chemicals that can upset the delicate balance of an optimally functioning mind.
The trigger isn’t grading per se but the ethos and methodology underpinning it. Put another way, the problem isn’t that we grade; it’s how we grade.
Done well, grading can offer valuable feedback that helps both to understand student progress and to guide teaching strategies. Rarely, however, is grading used to inform instruction. Too often, it’s inflicted on students after it. Again, the issue isn’t that we grade; it’s how we use grading.
Take, for example, the traditional 100-point grading scale, where a staggering 60 percent defines failure. This approach to grading embeds systemic inequities that do not account for the multidimensional aspects of student performance. Further, this approach leads to glaring inconsistencies: a student scoring zero percent is viewed the same as one scoring 59 percent, and a single zero can drastically pull down an average, regardless of other high-scoring performances. For example, a student can score 90 percent on three of four assignments and zero on one and end up with a close to failing average of 67.5 percent. The resulting inconsistencies paint a distorted picture of performance, often contrary to a student’s true abilities, skills, and knowledge.
Recognizing the flaws of grading means creating systems that account more fairly and accurately for a student’s progress and potential. Additionally, the push for equity in grading calls us to reimagine assessment as an organic, dynamic practice, shifting from a monolithic tool of judgment to various avenues that accommodate the diverse tapestry of a student’s learning experiences. Techniques such as portfolio-based grading, performance-based grading, and smaller scales offer alternative avenues to the traditional paradigms. Further, abolishing grades in favor of descriptive feedback and holistic assessment methodologies that account for unique circumstances also stands out as persuasive alternatives. Let’s explore a few of these alternatives below:
Portfolio-based grading. Portfolio-based grading offers an equitable approach to student assessment by evaluating a body of work over an extended period rather than relying solely on one-time exams or assignments. This method allows students to holistically demonstrate their understanding, growth, and mastery of material. By curating portfolios, students can include a range of work—such as essays, projects, and presentations—that showcases their development and skills. Educators can gain a more comprehensive understanding of students' abilities as they consider the cumulative evidence of learning. This nuanced evaluation considers the learning journey and provides a fairer, more individualized measure of student achievement.
Performance-based grading. Performance-based grading offers an equitable framework for assessing students based on their tasks, emphasizing real-world skills and applications of knowledge. Rather than focusing solely on written exams or homework, this method evaluates students through practical exercises, presentations, or projects that demonstrate their skills and understanding. This hands-on approach to assessment accommodates different learning styles and intelligences, providing a more inclusive measure of student capabilities. By concentrating on how well students apply what they’ve learned in realistic situations, performance-based grading offers a well-rounded, authentic gauge of student achievement.
Smaller scales. Utilizing smaller scales for grading presents an equitable way of assessing students by allowing for more precise and nuanced evaluation. Traditional 100-point scales often dedicate a large percentage to denoting failure, which can be demoralizing and less informative. By contrast, a smaller scale, such as a 4-point scale, can accurately reflect a student’s learning journey. Categories like “beginning,” “developing,” “proficient,” and “exemplary” offer a clearer picture of where the student is in terms of skill mastery, rather than labeling them with a failing grade that doesn’t tell us much about what students know and should be taught. Smaller scales like these can be more psychologically encouraging and educationally meaningful, as they concentrate on developmental milestones and competencies rather than penalizing students for what has not yet been learned.
No grades. Adopting a no-grade assessment strategy shifts the focus from numerical scores to descriptive feedback, providing an equitable and more holistic approach to student evaluation. Instead of assigning grades that may not fully encapsulate a student’s abilities or progress, educators give detailed comments and constructive criticism targeting specific strengths and improvement areas. This method fosters a learning environment where students are motivated by growth and understanding rather than by the pursuit of a perfect score. Descriptive feedback allows for a nuanced view of student performance, making it easier for students and educators to identify actions for academic development. In this way, assessment becomes a collaborative, ongoing conversation about learning rather than a summative judgment.
Holistic assessment. Holistic assessment provides an equitable approach to student evaluation by considering the whole student, including their unique circumstances, strengths, and areas for growth. Rather than focusing solely on test scores or isolated assignments, this method considers a range of factors such as classroom participation, effort, improvement over time, and even external factors like socio-economic conditions that may affect performance. By looking at the student more comprehensively, educators can make more accurate and fairer assessments that reflect not just what the student knows but who they are as a learner. This nuanced understanding can lead to more targeted and effective teaching strategies while also allowing students to be recognized for their full array of abilities and efforts.
Competency-based grading. Competency-based grading offers an equitable way to evaluate students by focusing on the mastery of specific skills or concepts rather than an aggregate of test scores and assignments. In this approach, students are assessed based on clearly defined competencies that they are expected to demonstrate after a course or unit. The grading criteria are transparent, allowing students to know precisely what is expected of them and to focus on achieving proficiency in each skill. This system allows for a more personalized pace of learning; students can continue to work on mastering a particular skill without being penalized for taking more time to do so. By emphasizing mastery over time spent, competency-based grading accurately reflects a student’s abilities and readiness for next-level work.
Participatory assessments. Participatory assessments foster an equitable learning environment by actively involving students in creating and applying grading criteria. This collaborative approach empowers students to have a voice in defining mastery, contributing to a shared understanding of educational objectives. By engaging in dialogue about grading metrics, students become more invested in their learning journey and develop a deeper understanding of course material. This shared accountability between students and educators ensures that the assessment process is transparent, mutually agreed upon, and tailored to the unique dynamics of the classroom. Such an inclusive approach demystifies the grading process and makes it more relevant and meaningful, encouraging active engagement and promoting a sense of agency among students.
To achieve true equity in grading, we advocate for assessment with dignity. Grades, regardless of the approach, should serve to inform and guide teaching and learning, not to punish or label. By embracing diverse forms of assessment, we aim to cater to different learning styles and strengths. By adopting pluralistic and hybrid assessment methods—using several techniques and combining approaches—teachers and students gain more agency in the learning and evaluation process.
Yet, the solution to inequity in grading isn’t about a mere selection of innovative tools; it’s about the audacious application of those tools to bestow dignity throughout the educational journey. In competency-based grading and participatory assessments, for instance, there lies the possibility of an educational utopia where both students and teachers are reimagined. This creative reimagining of assessment methods allows for a more enriching and equitable educational experience, unshackling teachers and students from restrictive traditional practices while moving them closer to an empathetic, humane model of pedagogy.
Then, if we want teachers to teach better and more effectively and students to learn more and with greater joy, we must fix grading. But fixing grading is not a call to diminish standards or turn from assessing students in ways that allow us to understand the measure of growth that occurs from instruction. Instead, it is about holding high standards and also the ladder, about gaining information crucial to each rung on that ladder so that we can help students climb even higher. It is not about understanding who didn’t make it to the top but about elevating all students by locating where they are and assessing what is needed to help them rise.
By this, we advocate not merely for an alternative methodology but for a seismic shift in our philosophical approach to grading. It is time to reframe grades as conduits for growth and enlightenment rather than as tags that instigate inequity. Let our measures be steeped in the kind of dignity that elevates learning from a series of transactions to a transformative, lifelong journey.
Suggested citation: Kirkland, D.E. (2023). Decolonizing the Gradebook: Reimagining Assessment as a Tool for Equity and Empowerment. In forwardED Perspectives, https://www.forward-ed.com/post/decolonizing-the-gradebook-reimagining-assessment-as-a-tool-for-equity-and-empowerment.