A few weeks ago, I finally sat down with Joe Feldman’s Grading for Equity (2018), expecting to nod my head along with every page. I loved teaching at an alternative school, considered myself flexible about deadlines, and frequently encouraged students to revise their writing. Based on what I’d heard, Grading for Equity was going to be right up my alley.
And what I’d heard was quite a lot. In the five years since the book’s publication, it’s only gained steam. Within the last month alone, it’s received both positive and negative coverage from the Dallas Express, EdSurge, the National Desk, NewsNation, Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Examiner. That’s not to mention Joe Feldman’s ongoing collaborations with the Network for College Success, the National Association of Independent Schools, and various school districts—or the upcoming Grading for Equity Virtual Summer Institute (registration fees start at $900).
But despite my high hopes, I was about to be disappointed. Yes, several of the book’s suggestions resonated with my own beliefs after having taught high school English for six years (not that long, and yet—cough—twice as long as Feldman was a classroom teacher). I agreed wholeheartedly with several of Feldman’s specific recommendations, including rubric scoring, no grades for effort, no extra credit, and aspects of mastery grading. I also appreciated his argument against grading homework. While I believe there’s a time and place for graded homework, he’s right to remind us that it’s a tricky issue: Grading homework for completion inflates grades, whereas grading it for accuracy may encourage cheating.
Even so, I couldn’t get on board with the book’s bigger ideas. Grading for Equity was filled with one moment after another where I wondered: Had this guy actually been a teacher? Of real, live kids? I taught in two very different school settings—a small, urban, Title I alternative school and a huge, suburban, relatively wealthy public school—and much of what Feldman is advocating would have been disastrous in either place.
My major objections fell into three categories:
1. Yeah, actually, everyone getting A’s is problematic.
One of Feldman’s arguments is that it’s OK if “equitable” grading raises tons of students’ grades up to an A. “Meeting an external standard, like writing a persuasive essay or passing the driver’s license test, or even exceeding it,” he writes, “is not like taking a limited resource, like gold or oil, which fluctuates in value depending on how much there is.” To the contrary, A’s do fluctuate in value depending on how many there are.
When lots more students get A’s, two undesirable things happen. First, they become less meaningful as a signal to students and parents about their achievement in the class. Are they really excelling in the subject? Should they pursue advanced study? Or are they merely proficient? If so many students are truly excelling, then maybe it’s time to make that class more challenging. On the other hand, when students receive A’s for mere proficiency, we risk decreased student effort and warped decision-making when it comes to college applications, choices of major, and career path.
Second, a bounty of A’s results in student transcripts that communicate less information, including to admissions officers and employers. Everyone getting A’s only increases colleges’ reliance on high-stakes entrance exams—which many schools are dropping—and more inequitable criteria like extracurricular involvement.
No, we don’t have to send prospectors to dig more A’s out of the earth, but that doesn’t mean that their value remains constant no matter what we do.
2. Unbounded optimism isn’t practical.
Teachers must hope for the best (embracing their students’ potential) but prepare for the worst (having structures in place for when lessons and assignments don’t go as planned). Feldman, on the other hand, seems only to hope for the best. He encourages teachers not to grade any assignments but end-of-unit summative assessments, arguing that students will understand the importance of those smaller assignments to prepare them for the bigger ones, and even if they don’t, then they won’t do well on their final assessments, and isn’t that punishment enough? Oh, except that Feldman also supports unlimited retakes with literally no end point: “Most schools and districts allow grade changes after a semester is over, so doesn’t that explicitly allow, perhaps invite, a student who wants to learn unmastered material to continue learning beyond the term and have her grade reflect that learning?”
I am exhausted just imagining what this would look like in practice. Human beings naturally procrastinate, plus kids’ executive functioning capacity isn’t refined yet (deadlines, by the way, can help accelerate this developmental process). Many students are glued to TikTok and Discord; many others are working to support their families, experiencing homelessness, or facing health challenges. If students fall behind for any reason, it gets harder and harder for them to catch up. It’s teachers’ job to set students up for success, and grades are an effective means of motivating students to prioritize learning. Sure, it’d be great if all kids were always motivated solely by the joy of learning, as Feldman envisions. But not every topic is going to pique the interest of every person, and distractions and other obligations abound in the real world. Teachers need another reliable source of motivation.
And speaking of teachers—they are already plenty burnt out. Limiting retakes and extensions hugely helps them manage their workloads. Teachers should grade for equity, not eternity.
3. Equity isn’t equality.
To my last point: Equity is about giving individual students the tools and opportunities they need. It isn’t about giving every student the same thing. Yet Feldman argues for across-the-board changes to grading policies, making claims like, “Retakes are equitable only when they are mandatory.” I understand the impulse here: Some students will hesitate to self-advocate, some won’t believe they really can do better the next time, and so on. But an effective teacher can, on a case-by-case basis, identify and reach out to the students who would really benefit from a retake or extension. Doing so can mitigate the impact of the “intermittent catastrophic failures” that rightly worry Feldman and help students continue to feel motivated—without abandoning all meaningful expectations and boundaries.
Especially as achievement gaps grow in the aftermath of the virtual-learning era, educational inequities remain a tremendous ethical and economic problem for the United States. But as the second edition of Grading for Equity makes its way toward bookstores later this year, Feldman fans ought to keep in mind that disregarding students’ and teachers’ realities still isn’t the solution.