APS dips its toe into equitable grading - Albuquerque Journal

APS dips its toe into equitable grading

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

In many schools, a grade of 59% or less is considered failing.

Put into perspective, Albuquerque Public Schools officials say, that means a 100-point grading scale is more focused on failure than it is on success. That’s partly why the district is implementing a pilot program inching toward change.

The two-year pilot, for which the board approved $687,500 last week in a 6-1 vote, would provide training for teachers in “equitable grading” – which, in a nutshell, focuses on “(counteracting) institutional biases” by cutting out traditional methods of grading.

Some have expressed concern that a move toward equitable grading will translate into relaxed expectations for students. Proponents, who include district officials and most of the school board, argue that the approach will foster more accuracy in grading.

That can include implementing a new grading scale more focused on a student’s mastery of a subject and focusing less on things that don’t reflect a student’s knowledge, such as meeting deadlines.

“It’s like a constructivist approach to assessment with a stronger focus on what students know and can do, instead of what they don’t,” Chief of Schools Channell Segura told board members last week. “It builds upon students’ attributes and diverse learning experiences so that they can feel successful, and then have this increased motivation.”

“Once we feel successful, we want to continue to feel successful. And it builds that sense of hope,” she added.

The pilot isn’t being implemented districtwide, Segura told the Journal in an interview. Right now, APS is planning to try it just with teachers “who are excited about it.”

Joe Feldman, CEO of Crescendo Education Group, the company providing the training, said he hopes to reach 300 teachers and 40 administrators with the training.

APS officials are looking for around 100 teachers and 20 administrators for the initial launch of the pilot, but said they welcome as many people as they can get.

Joyce Gormley, executive director of Curriculum and Instruction, said there’s no set timeline for the pilot yet, though Feldman said teacher cohorts are scheduled to begin working out which practices work for them and their classrooms in the fall of 2023.

The goal of the pilot, Segura said, is to build momentum among staff and data about how effective it is, which in turn could eventually inform policies for the rest of the district.

“Our hope is that more teachers and leaders will better understand what it is and how to do it, and also become excited to try and implement it,” she said. “We’re going to see how effective this is before we make any sweeping policy decisions.”

Practices

Interest in more equitable grading practices has increased in recent years, Segura said. Some schools have used it as a way of reengaging students after the pandemic. Money for the pilot is coming from federal pandemic relief funds.

Equitable grading practices include such things as shifting away from averaged final grades and focusing more on tests students can retake, which is an approach that more accurately shows a student’s progress.

“As a runner, when you’re training, you go and you run one mile, and then you build yourself up. When you finally run that marathon, they don’t average all of your training into your marathon time – that’s the end result of all your hard work,” Segura said. “So, what this does, is it works to get away from averaging students’ grades over time and instead (looks) at that end result to see how much the student has grown in that specific skill or standard.”

There will still be feedback along the way, Gormley added – but it will be focused on incremental checkpoints that are crucial to grasping a subject overall.

Teachers also will move away from such practices as rejecting late assignments, Gormley said, because whether a student met a deadline is not an actual measure of what a student has learned.

And another big shift, Segura said, is using a four-point grading scale instead of grading from 0 to 100, pointing out that, because 59% on the 100-point scale is considered failing, “it’s not an equitable approach to grading.”

A four-point grading scale, on the other hand, better helps students understand their mastery of a subject because it focuses on describing their level of proficiency, Segura said.

A zero would mean that a student hasn’t submitted any evidence of mastering a subject and a one would demonstrate “limited understanding.” A two – the threshold for a grade that would be counted for credit – would indicate a student was partially proficient, a three means proficiency and a four means “highly proficient.”

“Grading … it’s been very subjective over time on the 100-point scale,” Segura said. “It’s not focused on student learning, and so it’s more compliance-based.”

“We’re trying to get away from that,” she added, noting that she’s seen students’ motivation in school improve with the four-point grading scale.

Equitable grading, Gormley added, is still very rigorous, and actually does a better job of providing grade-level content to students.

Criticisms

Critics of the approach worry it will lower expectations for students.

Board member Peggy Muller-Aragón, the lone “no” vote against funding the pilot, said that focusing less on soft skills, such as showing up on time or missing deadlines “is not going to bode well for our kids” in workplaces.

Muller-Aragón cited a book by Feldman titled “Grading for Equity” in also arguing that the premise behind equitable grading is offensive because students of color or who have fewer opportunities are just as capable as their peers.

“It says things like ‘Less historically privileged students and their families – those of color, immigrants, and low income – are at a clear disadvantage,’ ” she said. “I take offense to that as a person of color.”

In the book, Feldman goes on to say that such families are at a disadvantage because they are often “without the language, resources and experience (and, therefore, often without the confidence) to navigate the school’s rules and requirements.”

Feldman added in the interview that making grades more accurate “benefits every student,” and that equitable grading practices don’t disadvantage students who have done well in the past – they just create more opportunities for every student.

Segura did tell board members she would have preferred to label the practices “standards-based or mastery-based” instead of “equitable,” because that’s what it’s focused on.

“I know that, as a board and community, we do support equity and we are trying to embed equitable practices in our district,” Segura said. “But, when it comes to this grade system, this grading approach, it’s more mastery-based, accurate grading than not.”

APS officials did write in a document answering board member questions that the equitable grading approach focuses on student academics and shifts away from such things as grading on behavior, which magnifies “the opportunity gap of our marginalized student populations.”

Those, officials added, include student groups identified in the Yazzie-Martinez consolidated lawsuit – students with disabilities, who are economically disadvantaged, who are Indigenous, and who are English learners.

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