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Equity in Grading

(A. Solano)

What does it mean when two students with the same academic performance and socioeconomic background receive different grades from two different instructors when the quality of instruction is relatively the same? How can it be that these same students have a 30% chance of getting a C or D with one instructor, but a 0% chance with a different instructor despite very similar instructional quality?[1] This is when equity in grading becomes an issue.

First, consider what it means to be a resource-poor or a resource-rich student. Resource-rich means opportunities during the K-12 journey to participate in academic summer camps, ongoing tutoring, after-school music enrichment, internships, etc.—these students for the most part can handle any quality of instruction and grading policies. Resource-poor tends to mean those students about whom some open access college and university educators say, “I wish they would have come to me better prepared.” We don’t have control over how they arrive, but we definitely have control over which of our practices can help them succeed without compromising rigor. It's also worth noting that students from a resource-rich background can also have negative academic outcomes. Students of color, regardless of socioeconomic background, often deal with racism and implicit biases that has a significant impact on their outcomes. 

Here are some examples of when resource-poor students transition to open access colleges and universities and experience significant challenges with some grading policies:

Presentation constitutes X% of the course grade.
Challenge: Resource-poor students are insufficiently prepared in K12 to deliver presentations in college.
Opportunity: College faculty include in the curriculum a topic on how to present. If it’s a key part of the syllabus, teach it. Teach students how to present, provide them with tools and resources, and then evaluate how they implement what they’ve been taught.

Participation constitutes X% of the course.
Challenge: While perhaps not a challenge that’s specific to all resource-poor students, this practice often punishes extremely shy people. This grade can mean the difference between passing or failing a class. Reserved, introspective, and quiet students should be given the chance to shine in a college environment.
Opportunity: Offer students the opportunity to participate via online chat forums, iClickers, and/or to share or demonstrate their knowledge in smaller groups.

Significant weight is placed on a final paper.
Challenge: Many resource-poor students will procrastinate because they are overwhelmed with unavoidable family and/or multi part-time job commitments.
Opportunity: Scaffold and chunk sections of the paper throughout the semester, allowing students to build different sections at a time, and provide feedback and give them the opportunity to improve each section. Let students submit all sections at the end of the semester as one final paper.

Significant weight is placed on a final cumulative exam.
Challenge: We don’t know how many students had an IEP (individualized education plan--for “special” education students) in K12, and equally concerning, how many of them should have had one but never got one (not to mention how many don't know to take advantage of disabled student services or refuse it because of a perceived stigma). One of the many issues with “special needs” students is the debilitating effect that high-pressure and timed test environments have on their ability to perform. (I put "special needs" in quotes because I'm not particularly fond of the term. People simply learn and prove their content knowledge in different ways.) They do know the content, and could demonstrate their knowledge in an environment that gave them a suitable option to demonstrate it.
Opportunity: Provide students with different options to demonstrate their knowledge of the content. For example, offer them the choice of presenting in a primarily visual manner (such as a written paper, detailed drawing, Venn diagram, poem, or graphic organizer), an auditory medium (like a video, podcast, or class debate), a kinesthetic medium (perhaps something interactive and hands-on), or even specific instructions for, say, any work that revolves around metaphor and analogy. Howard Gardner’s “Universal Design for Learning” strategies provide insights for suggesting such options.

From analyzing and modifying instructional practices to grading policies, we owe it to all students, and particularly those who are resource-poor, to continually improve our practices. It’s not about evaluating and judging the instructor per se; it’s about reflecting on our practices to see if we can create spaces of hope instead of fear. Hope will breed student success, whereas fear will sow the seeds of self-doubt and failure.


[1] Scenario modified from this example.


Also visit: Instructional Practices Key Finding | Elephant in the Room: Instruction in Higher Education

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