A proposal to overhaul grading practices at Pleasanton Unified School District became a broader discussion about ensuring both academic equity and accountability for secondary students at the Board of Trustees meeting last Thursday.
Professional development is the backbone of the equitable grading plan, which is intended to create "accurate, bias-resistant, and motivational" grading practices among secondary teachers at PUSD, according to a 24-page report presented at the June 24 meeting. Equitable grading practices are also shown to help reduce achievement disparities, grade inflation, grade deflation, and "statistically significant increase in correlation between grades and standardized exam scores."
Oakland-based Crescendo Education Group CEO Joe Feldman explained the theory and framework for equitable grading that evening, as well as outcomes, and said forgiveness is a central theme in which "we no longer hold mistakes against students."
By tying grades to academic performance only instead of factors like attendance or extra credit -- particularly most recent performance -- Feldman said students and teachers at other schools have reported more motivation with the equity grading system.
"The mistakes they make at the beginning hold their grade down, and when we use the most recent performance, we no longer hold them down," Feldman said.
Noting "intrinsic motivation is much more powerful" than extrinsic motivation, he added "there's lots of ways that teachers can give feedback" to encourage student participation in the classroom besides inflating letter grades.
"What we see over and over is that there is reduced grade inflation and reduced grade deflation," Feldman said. "Students aren't getting all the points for just doing stuff like bringing in the food for the potluck and just because they got their homework done on time everyday, even though they have nothing to do with their learning."
Instead, Feldman said the district should be asking "how can we make our grades really clear about what they represent and what they don't, and help build the intrinsic motivation for students to do the things that will help them learn best.
One way to accomplish that is by "not averaging performance over time...and instead making the grade only reflective of the students academic performance at the end of their learning with rubrics and clarity and explicitness."
Feldman also recommended giving students opportunities for retakes and redos, as well as performative feedback, and even non-grade based feedback from teachers including verbal praise or recognition on the classroom wall can help motivate a student's performance.
"If you say to a student, 'I've never been more proud of some of the things you said today, that was some of the most interesting comments I've heard from you all year, keep it up,' that means more than 'I'll give you five points because you raised your hand and you answered a question,'" he added.
Board President Joan Laursen said she predicted "there are going to be people in our community who are like, 'well, we shouldn't have grades at all,'" and that a series of upcoming workshops in the fall are needed "to engage in those same types of conversations" with parents.
"Absolutely, that's a key component because they only know one system and when they start to learn about this one, they actually love it," Feldman replied. "But initially they get a little anxious, especially parents of students who have been successful, because you're suggesting that you're going to change the rules of the game that they learned how to play successfully."
Feldman continued, "But when you start explaining what this is, they like it more, too, because why would they want their students to have a B, if they don't know the content...and then they go to the next grade level and get crushed because they weren't prepared, so everyone wants more accurate reporting."
Trustee Kelly Mokashi asked about holding students accountable for turning in late work, and Feldman said that question "comes up all the time."
"You warp the accuracy of the grade if you take off (points) for it because then you'd have a student who handed in something on time that's at a B level and a student who handed in something a day late who is at the A level," Feldman said. "But because they hand in late, both students are getting a B. What does that even mean then, what is a B?"
Helping students "recognize what the consequences are for handing in something late" is important but Feldman said "it may be under their control, and it may not be."
"Particularly during the pandemic, I think we became much more aware of how much grace that we should offer each other and our students, and that many times just because something is late doesn't mean it's their fault," he said. "The second thing is why would we want to penalize someone who wanted to learn longer than we allowed them?"
Without harming a student's grade for turning in something late, Feldman said they can still learn the consequences of turning in late assignments because "now you feel more pressure to hand in more things later because this work accumulates."
"If it's a time management problem, let's think about how to build time management skills, but to say we must give a consequence is just extrinsic motivation talking," Feldman said.
Trustee Steve Maher said, "What I see is maybe even a step further. As an educator, I would look to see (if) maybe I'm not using correct strategies or maybe I'm not using the curriculum correctly, because why are students still not getting to the level of understanding that I would like. That takes kind of self-reflection and looking at oneself, and maybe changing how you're utilizing your lessons."
Maher added, "I would hope that this would evolve, not only with the grading, but also teachers looking at how they present their lessons. In elementary school, I do see it happening in many cases. I'm not sure about high school yet, but I think they would like to get there."
PUSD is currently planning a series of Equity Learning Design workshops that will kick off in September. During that time, secondary teachers will participate in action research, with each educator selecting an equitable grading practice to try and then later share the results. Individual half-hour coaching sessions will also be offered for teachers, who will be partnered with a teacher of the same or similar subject already experienced in equitable grading, as well as support and feedback.