A New Model for Academic Faculty III: Grading for Equity

TL;DR After attending a recent conference on Grading For Growth hosted by The Grading Conference I have read Grading for Equity by Joe Feldman. I am totally on board with this movement, and over the past few years have independently stumbled onto most of the basic findings described in the book. However, I think the movement is doomed to failure, especially in high schools, community colleges, and smaller four year colleges because faculty have ceded too much of their classroom authority to other parties. Administrators, especially here in North Carolina community colleges, have adopted an authoritarian corporate stance, and do not respect faculty expertise and are beholden to too many outside influences. I see similar trends across the country. The current academic model is inherently inequitable, and cannot be made equitable especially with administrators wielding disproportionate power over faculty. We need a new model.

A handful of books have profoundly influenced my professional work over the years. Arnold Arons’ Teaching Introductory Physics was the first, and Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success is another. I judge the profundity of a book on whether or not it keeps my interest as I read it. Both of these books were so influential that once I began reading them I literally could not put them down. Joe Feldman’s Grading for Equity earned a place in this small pile of books in my home office, although I did not read it in one sitting. The chapters are rather bite-sized and I read them one or two at a time and then allowed myself a day or so to think about them before moving to the next couple of chapters.

I moved to standards-based grading several years ago, and it was the most frightening thing I have ever done. However, I must admit that it has worked pretty much as I expected it to and I have no intention of moving away from it. Note that in this post, I use the term “standards-based grading” as a generic term for several types of assessment which aim to eliminate inequity in the current points and letter based grading system we’re typically used to. I won’t begin to get into all the rich history here (like the distinction between standards-based and specifications grading), and I encourage readers to peruse the The Grading Conference website, particularly the Resources page. Instead, I want to focus on three very particular issues in three particular chapter of Feldman’s book, and hopefully pique your interest to get you to read the book. I also want to use these chapters, and the book as a whole, to justify my formal conclusion, that equity grading cannot currently become a reality.

First, I want to highlight chapter 8. This chapter is profound to me because it illustrates our deeply ingrained, and somewhat macabre, obsession with using the arithmetic mean (aka the average) in calculating grades. Why do we implicitly think that grades must be the result of averaging? Feldman points out we could easily justify using medians or modes, and he goes into a detailed discussion of this. The main point is the illustrate the problems with averaging, and again I won’t go into all the details here because Feldman does an excellent job with this. His discussion proceeds to include accounting for variations in student performance through the semester, how this must be accounted for, and how averaging penalizes students who don’t learn at the same rate as that of other students. It’s a very enlightening discussion.

Second, I want to highlight chapter 9. The emphasis here is that including extra credit, participation, and effort in grading is inherently inequitable. When I started teaching thirty years ago, I of course included things things because they had been included (ostensibly…I never actually saw evidence of it) as criteria in many course I took in college. Over the years, I gradually came to the realization that these things are bogus because they don’t have anything at all to do with learning. Feldman really drives this point home in this chapter, and quite persuasively. I now cringe when colleagues mention that they offer extra credit in their courses. Of course I don’t say anything, but I still cringe. When my own students try to get me to play this game I naturally explain why I don’t offer extra credit and students nearly always admit that my point of view is justified. Let’s be honest and admit that students are hip to the “game of school” even in college.

Third, I want to highlight chapter 14, the book’s final chapter. Here, Feldman presents case students of two teachers, Nick and Cathy. Nick is a high school physics teacher and the focus of my discussion here. On page 231, something leaped out of the page and immediately caught my attention. It seems that Nick had stumbled onto the significance of face to face discussions with students as a means of assessment. See Oral Interviews as Assessment for my take on this. This was amazing, but in the middle of the same page is a sentence that made my jaw drop:

This freedom to exercise professional judgment transforms grading from a tabulation of points into something more complex.

These are Feldman’s words, but they echo Nick’s commentary from the preceding paragraph. My jaw dropped because we, as faculty, are hired as qualified professionals but are not always, especially nowadays, allowed to act as such, especially when it comes to grading. As recently as the grading conference I mentioned above, I’ve drawn harsh words for asserting that our discipline specific professional judgment is, and must be, an integral part of all grading because all algorithms that attempt to quantify student learning are flawed in one way or another and sooner or later a human must be part of the process. There is no alternative. Unfortunately, I have colleagues who either can’t, or won’t, recognize this in their own classrooms. More about that later. On page 233 is a similarly profound paragraph:

Nick finds it so professionally rewarding to grade in this way — beholden not to an antiquated system of points, stuck in a dynamics of controlling students, and dependent on grading software calculations, but being able to fully utilize his expertise, authentically partnering with his students, and focusing entirely on learning. “I especially appreciate the empowerment that comes with recognizing that I am the best judge of what my students know, not some number generated by a carefully devised system, even if that system was designed by me.”

I want to meet Nick and shake his hand, assuming Nick is an actual person that is.

I could go on and cite many, many other profound statements from other chapters, but now I must move on to the unpleasant part of this post. Here is it.

As it currently exists, America’s status quo educational system, including higher education, cannot allow for the kind of equity grading expertly described in Feldman’s book.

For my justification, I will focus on my own environment, that of the community college in particular and higher education in general. Across the country, community college faculty have ceded their authority to outside entities to which they now perceive to be beholden (in some cases this authority has been blatantly stolen away by internal entities…you know who). They think they much teach a certain way (e.g. lecturing) because some external or internal entity says so. They think they must be in lock step with someone else’s content and pacing because some external or internal entity says so. They think they must grade a certain way because some external or internal entity says so. There is no regard for whether these externally or internally imposed constraints are equitable; that never enters into the discussion. There is no regard, or even simple recognition, of faculty’s professional status and judgment; that never enters into the discussion. Thus, I conclude that if this is the norm, as many colleagues steadfastly insist, then equity grading simply cannot happen and we are wasting our time trying. It’s just that simple.

When I was hired, I was not hired to teach someone else’s canned content. I was hired to make pretty much all the instructional decisions about my courses (content, assessment, pedagogy/andragogy, preparedness for transfer credit, etc.). I had to figure all this out for myself. I was treated as a professional and my judgment was trusted. I can honestly say that I know of no, as in zero, difficulties any of my students have had in success upon leaving my environment as a result of anything I have done. I obsess over this, sometimes to the point of losing sleep, and it is always my number one priority. I explicitly contact former students and ask them; they have no reason to lie at that point. Over the past three decades, administrators have assumed a more authoritarian corporate stance in which they assert the expertise on how things should be done despite them having made the conscious decision to leave teaching for administration (and there should be an impenetrable firewall between those two worlds). Respect for, and indeed even simple recognition of, faculty expertise has eroded to the point where I have literally been laughed at for asserting recommendations from AAPT and research findings in PER. I’m not alone, as my community college colleagues across North Carolina, and indeed across America, report being subjected to the same unprofessional treatment. Apparently many administrators think they know how to design courses and simply want to hire faculty who will play the role of a content provider, which is the antithesis of higher education. Specifically regarding grading, administrators still speak in the inequitable language of traditional grades and force faculty to use software systems like that make no provision for anything remotely described in Feldman’s book. Instead, faculty are faced with the ultimate reality of having to create some sort of kludge to satisfy administrators and other “stakeholders” (damn I hate that word!) with no regard for the inequity such systems perpetuate, and all this while these same administrators whine about equity as a social justice issue. Do they not realize they’re standing in the way of their very own goals or are they just virtue signaling? Personally, I think it’s the latter because they don’t listen to those who know better…us. Faculty should never be in the position of having to take something good, like equity grading, and ultimately turn it into the same old inequitable result…a traditional grade. Therefore, I again assert that until and unless administrators are as willing to change things within their realm (e.g. resistance to outside influences such as politics) as faculty are, equity grading can never happen.

Another issue is hiding in plain sight, and I think many of us see it but too many of us don’t want to admit it because it is so deeply ingrained. I’m speaking of the way higher education treats students like cattle, herding hundreds (even thousands) of them into lecture halls for their foundational introductory courses. Equity grading as laid out by Feldman simply doesn’t scale to this livestock environment, and faculty know this. There is no mention of this in Feldman’s book (unless I missed it). This is something out of faculty’s control; it’s higher education’s business model (I hate that term too!). It is inherently inequitable and cannot be made equitable despite our attempts. Professionals, you know…like us, should never be in the position of having to repeatedly make something that is inherently bad, good. It’s insulting on so many levels, and it seems unique to teaching as a profession. I wish I knew why, but I don’t. All I know is that if higher education were true to its perceived purpose then there would be no large enrollment lecture classes (note my use of “perceived purpose” there…we all know what I’m referring to). I will turn this around and say that if we, as professionals, are serious about teaching, why to we participate in something we all know can never be made truly equitable? I think one reason is that we don’t want to admit to our participation in the scandal. Another reason is that for many, a lot of money changes hands in our favor (that’s certainly not true in every case…just ask high school or community college faculty…there are of course always exceptions). Another reason, again, is that we have ceded too much of our professional authority to other entities and have given up on ever changing the system, and I think that is perfectly reasonable. A system that is working as designed, to be inherently inequitable, cannot be made equitable and it’s pointless to try.

So, once again I say we need a new model. It’s essential if we are to mainstream equitable grading. Believe it or not, I’m optimistic that the energy to do this exists. Fear of the unknown is the main problem at this point.

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