Grading Systems Need An Overhaul To Reflect More Equitable Standards

by Elizabeth Broadbent
A teacher grading student's exam

It took a worldwide pandemic. But it’s finally happening. Facing soaring numbers of Ds and Fs as students struggled with schooling while the world fell down around them, the Los Angeles and San Diego Unified school districts said: enough. According to The LA Times, they ordered teachers to change their grading systems. Those districts “encouraged” teachers to let failing students rewrite essays and retake tests. No more “hard deadlines.” Rather than base grades on arbitrary points or numbers, they should reflect what the student learned, regardless of “behavior, punctuality, or missed deadlines.”


As Sarah Schopfer, an English teacher at Colfax High School in Placer County, California told the National Education Association, traditional grading systems, like those we experienced in school, are “unfair, overly subjective, inaccurate, and inequitable.” Some students chronically turned in late work because they worked or cared for ill family members. Imagine a student who’s perpetually tardy because he has to drop his little brothers at elementary school. In a traditional grading system, these kids are penalized for circumstances beyond their control, circumstances which reflect exactly zero about what they’ve learned or their capacity to do so.

The digital divide of virtual schooling threw inequalities of our old grading systems into sharp relief. I listened to teachers talk about it: some students did virtual school in quiet rooms with their own space, undisturbed. Others had to watch siblings during class time, or had spotty WiFi, or worked in noisy common areas. Some had to work. As Schopfer says, so often, those kids “would be upset as they told me about their circumstances and why it was difficult for them to finish an assignment on time.”

They’d be so worried about their grades dropping through circumstances beyond their control.

It’s time for a change.

Old Grading Systems Show Schools Don’t Care About Learning

I taught college English for a decade. Here’s a secret: most people who teach college aren’t taught how to teach, with the exception of writing teachers. Our pedagogy was based firmly in work done by greats such as Peter Elbow, Alfie Kohn, and Paulo Freire: all educational theorists who railed against traditional schooling methods as inherently unequal and unfair; they were colonial systems that forced conformity to a white, middle-class system and penalized children who didn’t meet that “standard.”

If schools want children to learn, why do their grading systems focus on issues that have nothing to do with learning: lateness, absenteeism, tests given once then forgotten, essays handed in effectively as drafts. Why, if a student’s learned, are they penalized in November for incorrectly answering a question in September?

Our grading systems do not reflect how much children have learned — ask me to recite the periodic table of elements I “learned” in tenth grade. Instead, they show how well students conform to a set of conditions we’ve set for them, conditions which reflect white, ableist, middle- and upper-class realities. The goal of these systems, then, is not to teach children English, math, social studies, or science. It instead teaches conformity to white middle-class ideals, rewarding those who achieve that conformity with college and job prospects, and penalizing those who can’t cut it.

“Traditional grading has often been used to ‘justify and to provide unequal educational opportunities based on a student’s race or class,'” said Alison Yoshimoto-Towery, L.A. Unified’s chief academic officer, and Pedro A. Garcia, senior executive director of the division of instruction, in a letter to principals last month.

What Does An F Really Mean?

“Instead of working harder, the vast majority of students who get an F tend to withdraw, try less, and come to school less because they’re taking an F for what it actually stands for: failure,” says Sarah Duncan in Edutopia. “‘They interpret an F as ‘You do not belong in this environment.'”

Our grading systems actually brands students as failures. They, personally, have failed, and so often, as the NEA points out, that failure is not one of learning, but of turning work in late. Sometimes, students realize they’ll be penalized so much for late work that they don’t bother doing it at all.

They have failed to learn. But did they? No, they didn’t learn something on the timescale arbitrarily determined by a teacher, regardless of their life situation and circumstances. And should they subsequently learn whatever they failed, they still failed, and that zero still factors into their final grade. Doesn’t matter if they learned. They didn’t learn at the right time, and they’re penalized for it. Perhaps in perpetuity, if it happens enough.

“People have different needs at different times,” Kristal Jaaskelainen, a high school teacher at a small independent school in Ann Arbor, told the NEA. “For me to say to a student, ‘you will learn at this pace and in this time, and I will grade you on it,’ does not seem to be aligned with anything that I know about learning or anything that I value.”

Of Course, People Oppose Changing The System

“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,” say Yoshimoto-Towery and Garcia in their letter to principals. But some of course, many dinosaurs don’t agree that our grading system needs serious changes.

“My concern is that by calling certain practices equitable and suggesting they are the right ones, what we risk doing is creating systems in which we tell kids it’s OK to turn in your work late. That deadlines don’t matter… And I don’t think this sets kids up for successful careers or citizenship,” Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, “a conservative think tank,” told The LA Times.

Conservatives tend to believe in a hierarchy of value systems, with middle- and upper-class white values at the top. They usually object to anything that threatens to upend that system, preferring to recreate children in their own image rather than opening up a pluralistic society. Changing our grading systems would remake the landscape of American schools, shifting our values from conformity to learning.

What happens when the “failures” become successful?

Hopefully, we’re about to find out.