Grading for equity in the Acalanes district 

Striving to accurately measure student learning and understanding

A student walks out of math class feeling helpless and defeated, their mind spinning from a math problem they did not understand. Though they studied for hours the previous evening, making sure they understood all that they needed to know for the test, that dedication seemed worthless once the test was on the desk. Instead of testing their knowledge of the material, the assessment only seemed to test the limits of their mental stability. From this experience, students wonder whether grades truly represent learning, or simply reveal an out-of-date system.

   As the Acalanes Union High School District strives to accurately measure student learning and understanding, Acalanes teachers adjusted their grading policies after participating in a “Grading for Equity” program on Oct. 5. 

   The district based its “Grading for Equity” program on author and educator Joe Feldman’s book Grading For Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms, which he released in 2018 to address problems he encountered in the traditional grading system.

    That same year, the Acalanes district worked with Feldman and his organization, the Crescendo Education Group, to reevaluate the grading procedures within district classrooms.   

   “There were so many teachers and principals who struggle with really tackling and talking productively about how to make our grading better,” Feldman said. “I wanted to help normalize the conversation in schools, make it productive, and bring research into it.”  

   The program resumed its partnership with the district in 2021 after a year-long hiatus due to distance learning. On Oct. 5, the first cohort of 40 Acalanes teachers took on a year-long reflective study, tasked with evaluating the effectiveness of equitable grading policies in their classrooms. 

   According to the National Education Association (NEA), traditional grading procedures emerged from the 1840s, when teachers transitioned from oral to written tests as more students began attending school. When World War I began, the U.S. military administered an “Army Mental Test,” to evaluate aptitude among army recruits. 

   “When people start looking at a 0-100 scale, standardizing across the board, [and] ‘ABCDF’, it’s related to the factory model and also how the arms services were looking at new recruits,” Acalanes district  Director of Educational Services Abhi Brar said. “That’s when the grading scales and also when some of the standardized testings came about, and that’s the traditional rationale for why ‘ABCDF’ grading exists.”

   Many problems arise from traditional practices, which educators and students may overlook because these procedures feel normal and safe.   

   “Teachers get almost no training in how to grade, actually. Many of them just replicate how they were graded as students. They may not recognize how many of the practices actually undermine their work, particularly when it comes to equity,” Feldman said.

   Educators view the vast failure range resulting from the zero to 100-point scale as inequitable. While the top 40 percent of scores determine a passing grade, the lower 60 percent of scores define failure. However, a 50 to 100 range instead of a traditional zero to 100 scale evenly distributes each letter grade 10 points apart. 

   “As a math teacher, I found it really hard to defend that zero to 100 scale mathematically, ironically enough. A simple example would be if you got 100 on a test and then a zero, which averages to an ‘F’, a 50%, under the typical scale we’ve been using for decades. If I have an A and an F, it should average to a C,” Acalanes AP Calculus teacher Ken Lorge said. 

   The current Grading for Equity practices discourage the use of zeros due to their possible detrimental and disproportionate effects on student grades. However, some teachers utilize zeros in other ways. 

   “In some ways, that zero is more of an announcement: a foghorn to students to turn that in so that I can assess it,” Acalanes English teacher James Muñoz said.

   A feedback loop on assignments serves as an essential part of helping students improve, which differs from receiving a grade. 

   “Feedback is absolutely critical to learning and growth. Students need feedback on the work they submit, it’s absolutely critical,” Brar said. “But, does everything a student submit need to be graded and go into a gradebook? And when that happens, is the greater motivation to turn something in on time the points earned or the practice?” 

   The “Grading for Equity” program emphasizes the importance of classifying homework as strictly practice for students. An issue arises within classrooms where formative work such as homework, in-class assignments, and other practice material outweigh tests and projects. By default, some teachers give students full credit when they complete their homework, allowing students to earn around 60 percent of their grade by simply turning assignments in.  

   “That motivation to do homework and sometimes even copy homework comes from, in my opinion, wanting to get those points [and] avoid missing out on them rather than really, truly learning the material,” Brar said.

   To counteract the grade inflation from homework graded on completion, teachers raise the weight of summative assessments such as tests, projects, and finals in the gradebook, which measure understanding at the end of a lesson or unit. However, several students believe that the stress surrounding summative assessments hinders the true measurement of their summative learning.

   “What happens with summative assessments is that I cram the night before and then I take the test. I don’t think it’s an accurate representation of my knowledge because I’m just trying to teach myself everything the night before instead of going through the process with time and understanding it,” Acalanes junior Owen Salmon said. 

   Although equitable grading policies plan to address late-night cramming before summative assessments, students often feel overwhelmed with heavy workloads from class, causing homework to become a chore rather than a learning experience.

   “I feel like a lot of the classes I’m in are very fast-paced and they don’t give you enough time to practice on the things you’re tested on. It’s really difficult to feel like you’re keeping up,” Acalanes sophomore Macie Rainey said.

   Educators acknowledge that these changes may appear radical to some students, especially incoming freshmen who will need to adjust to learning practices at the high school level. 

   “I feel that at Acalanes, there’s a lot more pressure on my grades and cumulative GPA. I feel like I have to directly worry how each letter grade I get will affect my future,” Acalanes freshman Samuel Whipple said. 

   Some Acalanes teachers of Advanced Placement (AP) classes believe that certain “Grading for Equity” practices, like test retakes, hinder preparation for the final AP exam. 

   “The AP test is a one and done, you don’t get to retake the AP test, so there needs to be a certain level of preparation to the best you can for that particular test. It’s a high-stakes test, and so I need students to feel a little bit of pressure in that regard,” Lorge said.

   However, AP teachers may also balance equitable grading practices while ultimately preparing students for standardized tests.

   “I will drop low test scores especially if it happened earlier in the year. I care more about what is happening at the end of the year, not necessarily at the beginning of the year,” Lorge said. 

   Although students understand the expectations of taking these college-level courses, unfamiliar grading policies further contribute to the stressful environment.

   “It’s a little scary not having that safety net because I’m so used to having retakes and extra credit, but now that we don’t get that and our grades are 70% tests and 20% the final, it’s hard having so much depend on something I can’t retake,” Acalanes junior Catherine Judson said.

    As students prepare for life beyond high school, they struggle to separate their high school grades and their perception of themselves. 

   “Part of [my stress] comes from the idea that I need to get perfect grades to reach a higher level, like college,” Salmon said. “I often feel connected to my grades and that my self-worth [depends] on how good my grades are. I feel like I need to always be checking them and trying my hardest to improve them in order to make myself better.”

    Educators hope to instill the idea that a grade should not define a student, but should reflect their learning and understanding of expectations.

   “The ultimate goal is that we want to see some systemic change. We want to see a district-wide change where we collectively believe that these changes to our grading practices are more equitable to our students, a better reflection of what students have learned, and we all believe agree with them wholeheartedly and support them,” said Brar, the district’s director of educational services.