Teachers and administrators are working hard to support student mental health and create a more equitable education system. But grading and assessment is often left out of the conversation, even though we know that socioeconomic status, learning differences, and chronic stress and adversity can impact students’ performance—as can stereotype threat, or the fear of confirming negative stereotypes about one’s identity.
To institute a more equitable approach to grading in my classroom, I changed how I calculate grades in my chemistry classes. I believe that teachers should evaluate students’ content knowledge, not their behavior or ability to follow rules, demonstrate compliance, or memorize social norms. My approach demonstrates that change is possible and resonates with students.
Implementing Restorative Assessment
In my system, students receive two types of grades: assessments and daily grades. Assessment grades are based on students’ content knowledge and performance as demonstrated, not through memorization-based recall activities but through substantive projects and assignments that require them to apply their learning to new contexts, demonstrating transfer.
Because my objective is to simulate real-world applications of knowledge and to make learning accessible, I invite students to use their notebook—containing notes from class—during assessments. Just as they will have access to factual information in real-world contexts (such as the internet, while working on a job site during their careers), so do I encourage them to utilize informational tools in the development and demonstration of their learning in the classroom.
Utilizing Daily Grades
I use what I call “daily grades” to document how a student has spent time engaging with curricular content and working toward an assessment. Multiple absences or a lack of engagement can influence but do not determine a student’s learning of the material. For that reason, I don’t factor students’ attendance into grades but focus on the quality of students’ work.
Through this approach, students see a cause-and-effect relationship emerge between their behavior (e.g., attendance and engagement) and performance on assessments. In my classroom, many students have changed their behavior as a result (attending more classes, for example, or taking more initiative to catch up when missed lessons are unavoidable). This change feels more intrinsically motivated than more punitive measures such as punishment related to poor attendance, given that knowledge acquisition—rather than rote learning—is at the heart.
While teachers can customize the weight of daily grades and assessments, I have done ratios of 50/50, 60/40, and 70/30 (weighting daily grades and assessments, respectively) and found that, with my students, the most productive ratio was 60/40. This balance produced final grades that felt most representative of my students’ performance in class.
Offering Flexibility and Adaptation
I always encourage and make available retakes and makeups on assessments. I treat the end of the semester as students’ final deadline and accept revised work until that time. Learning is iterative, and I believe that everyone should have the chance to improve. And life happens—students who have responsibilities or circumstances that cause them to miss time in the classroom deserve opportunities to catch up and to demonstrate their learning in equitable ways.
This is why, additionally, I do not give homework. I provide time in class for students to work on content with opportunities to seek out my support or that of their peers. This approach allows us all to learn from one another throughout the process of knowledge acquisition and respects students’ and their families’ time outside of the school day.
Considering Student Behavior
As noted above, there are many factors that can impact students’ behaviors and attendance at school, and many of these factors are beyond students’ control. Why, then, should we punish students when their behaviors or attendance begin to slide? Why not respond with care, concern, and responsiveness to the situational complexities that may give rise to these challenges?
“No zero” policies, in which students’ grades are not impacted by these factors, offer students clean slates for returning to the classroom and reengaging in learning without fear. Their grades, through this approach, are solely connected to their demonstrated content knowledge and progress toward the achievement of learning objectives, which are possible even when students have challenging days or have to miss class and catch up on their work at a later time. Learning, in this case, is objective—not impacted by circumstances or the potential bias.
Student Responses—and Responsiveness
In my work, I have found that students respond positively to the efforts I am making to help rather than punish them, leading to greater student buy-in during class. Implementing a responsive approach to grading has led to stronger student-teacher relationships in my learning environment and has cultivated greater trust among all involved—which, in turn, boosts students’ motivation.
Grade equity is important if we are serious about closing the opportunity gap that continues to plague our educational system while increasing student accountability through restorative rather than punitive measures. Grades that reflect learning, not behavior, can bring us that much closer.