The Color of Teaching: Grading students equitably

A WEAC Blog by Jesse Martinez
La Crosse Seventh Grade Teacher and
WEAC Minority Guarantee Representative

Over the last six weeks, educators, students and parents have all experienced a rollercoaster of emotions – excitement about new learning opportunities online, sadness and grief about school buildings being closed for the remainder of the school year, frustration and anger towards our own abilities to effectively teacher remotely, and everything in between. Now that we are certain we will not return to our classrooms this school year, however, a new topic of discussion has come to the forefront; what should we be assessing and how should we grade our students?

Although there is no right answer to this question and no “one size fits all approach,” I wanted to offer some thoughts and resources as we attempt to navigate this new normal we find ourselves in. First and foremost, I want to provide a resource from the DPI. This link is from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and provides their recommendations for teaching and learning during COVID 19. The DPI recommends focusing on providing learning opportunities via feedback and connections with our students. 

With that in mind, we must consider whether it is equitable to go about “business as usual” with our grades, especially if we are focusing on maintaining strong relationships with our students. How can we possibly build and maintain relationships while telling them they are failing at this new form of learning (which we did not prepare them for)? Given the fact that there is an inequity in access to resources already, which will widen the achievement and opportunity gaps for students across the country, we need to consider whether this hyper focus on grades during the pandemic without an equity lens is truly best practice for our students? 

Before we go any further, I should be clear — our focus during this time should be making connections with students and providing resources for their well being. 

My personal thoughts on grading during the pandemic have evolved greatly over the time we have spent away from our classrooms. I initially advocated for Pass/Incomplete grades, giving students credit for engaging and participating in “classroom” activities. This is the system we have adopted in the district that I work in. In theory, this system will allow students to “pass” their classes simply by showing they can engage on a semi-regular basis in their classes. On the surface, this solution seems like a no-brainer which is why many districts across the state and across the country have adopted it. 

Thankfully, I have colleagues and friends who are critical thinkers and continually challenge the “no-brainer” solutions. A few days ago, this article was shared with me. In it, Dr. Manuel Rustin of Pasadena, California, argues that “Pass/Fail, “Pass/Incomplete,” and systems that give no grades at all are insufficient and inequitable. He effectively argues that unless the entire country adopts this model (which is not the case) then the students receiving no grades or “Pass/Fail” grades are at a disadvantage when it comes to transcripts and/or GPA. He argues that the only equitable response to grading during this time is to give every student an A.

I will admit that at first I felt incredibly skeptical about this. My own bias led me immediately down a path where I envisioned the ever unpopular “participation trophies.” However, this would not be a participation trophy. It would be what every student DESERVES! 

First, how can we possibly decide to give a student a “fail” when we have no way of truly knowing what their pandemic experience is? Dr. Rustin argues that even in a world where every student has access to a device AND internet (which is definitely NOT the case for my students), many students do not have the privilege of being able to spend effective time on their devices. They have become babysitters, errand runners and everything in between for their families. In good conscience, how can we give a student in that situation a “failing” grade? 

Dr. Rustin also makes the point that we have not taught our students how to take our class from their homes. And, as he says in the article, “It’s Teaching 101—you don’t grade students on something that you haven’t even taught them.” As teachers, we may have adjusted in some ways to teaching from home, but it is not equitable to grade students while we are learning ourselves how to do this. 

As we move forward and look at the possibility of remaining in the remote teaching world as we enter a new school year, it is vital to make this consideration. Give each student an A, AND continue to provide meaningful learning opportunities for our students. This form of learning is not what we have prepared our students for. This is not what they, or we, are used to. So we should give them an A, and continue to work together to create meaningful learning and rich feedback for our students.

If you are interested in hearing Dr. Rustin and Leo Glazé have a conversation regarding this topic, please feel free to check out this link

Jesse Martinez

Jesse Martinez, an educational justice advocate, is a seventh grade science, social studies and Spanish Immersion teacher in the School District of La Crosse and serves as the Minority Guarantee Representative on the WEAC Board of Directors. He writes to bring forward information WEAC members of color and open the lines of communication about issues facing minority communities in the field of public education. He welcomes your perspectives and feedback to share with the entire WEAC Board of Directors. Send him an email.

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