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  • Writer's pictureSatyajith Kesanapally

A New Standard for Justice in Grades by Arpita Shanbhag

Updated: Jun 5

Howcan California’s grading approaches in public schools enable all students to receive a fair and enhanced academic experience? Let’s take any two schools in California: say, School A and School B. In School A, the students have their learning styles and strengths valued, they show consistent effort and improvement, and their academic journey takes place in an inclusive educational environment. In School B, the performances of students are significantly lower than in School A, students’ circumstances and learning styles are overlooked, and they learn in a competitive, hostile environment. Imagine you were a student deciding between School A or School B. Which one would you attend to let yourself shine? Personally, I would choose School A—modeled off of schools in Los Angeles Unified and Pleasanton Unified1—that prioritize a student’s pathway to advancement. Schools that use a grading scale called equity-based grading.

Originating from within the classroom walls and eventually expanding far beyond, this is the burning question that remains today: Should public schools in California adopt standard or equity-based grading systems? In California, some schools follow the standards-based grading system, others utilize the equity-based system. The debate2 is especially controversial due to each system’s pros and cons—and because of how many students are affected by the grading system. These grading systems inevitably influence the pathways of our futures. We need to ask ourselves: Are public school students better off with a standardized approach, where all students are treated the same way, or an equity-based approach, where all students are treated fairly based upon the factors of who we are?

Weare the public students of California, who thrive in our academic pursuits in an inclusive, growing, community of understanding and supportive teachers and students. We are the public students of California, who are best equipped for success under the policy of equity-based grading.

Standards-based grading takes place in numerous schools across California, but what is standards-based grading? Standards-based grading3 grades unique students to the same standard. Imagine that one student excels at the topic while another is suffering to the point of failure. Standards-based grading treats them equally. Even though this might seem fair, standards-based grading ultimately promotes inequality. Students have unique lifestyles, experiences, backgrounds, and knowledge gaps, but these factors aren't considered under standards-based grading.

I feel lost in myself when I see this piece of paper, this transcript, that I think truly represents me. I’ve tried my best to keep my mental health afloat and my top priority, but it’s hard when you are a public school student who’s trying to survive another day of numerous assignments that don’t ever seem to end. These assignments go into the grade book, without a second thought. We are only humans: we can make mistakes, especially due to stress, and these mistakes may cause our grades to tank, negatively impacting our official grades. When weadopt an equity-based grading, we know that our mistakes can be fixed, and have a better representation of mastery on our permanent record.

After I got my assessment back from any class, the only recurring thoughts that polluted my mind were “I could’ve done better in this section” or “This is a simple mistake that I know I can fix next time”—if there was a next time. That’s the problem with standardized grading: The teacher teaches one topic, quizzes you on it, and moves on to the next as if all the students understand it. But more often than not, the information enters and exits the second after. We have learned from our mistakes and have an idea of what we need to fix for future tests, but those future tests will never come.

With standardized grading, we live with letter grades that don’t truly reflect our abilities to improve. That’s why we need to adopt equity-based grading strategies.

On the flip side, equity-based grading4 prioritizes equity over equality. Equity-based grading is a form of motivation, improvement, and inclusion. In addition to grading based on the traditional test in standards-based grading, equity-based grading considers a student’s effort and challenges in learning each concept, which promotes chances to receive better grades, and positively impacts students for the rest of their lives. In this system, a fair and inclusive environment is created.

When wefollow equity-based grading procedures, we’re getting the full picture of what students can do. Equity-based grading factors simultaneously influence students’ capabilities and lifestyles to help them succeed. Without this equity-based system, the next generation will simply be a crowd of put-down teenagers who weren’t able to recognize their true talent because it was dimmed by a letter grade that truly did not represent them. We are more than just a letter on a piece of paper, and now it’s time that we realize that.

It’s important to value equity over equality, even though both of them are important to recognize. We have all seen that famous cartoon5 of three people, tall, medium, and short, attempting to watch a baseball game. The tall one can see just fine, the medium is struggling, and the smallest can’t see anything no matter how hard he tries. When wetreat all three equally by giving them each an identical box to increase their height, the tall one isn’t exactly affected, since he could see perfectly finebefore; the medium one can now see the same way the tall one can see; and the short one still cannot see anything. When we treat all three with equity, the tall one remains unchanged, being able to watch the game without standing on any boxes. The medium-sized one needs only one box, and now he can see just fine. Finally, the short one needs two boxes to see the game just fine. In the end, all three of these people could watch the game because they are being treated with equity, not equality.

This example can be applied to the grading systems as well. We are all different people, with different lives and necessities, meaning that sometimes we need more or less guidance than others. Sometimes, we need more chances to redeem ourselves, in the real world and the education system. Sometimes, we need to see that being treated with equity is more empowering and beneficial to others than being treated with equality. In the words of the grade book, sometimes we need to adopt practices students can benefit from, like equity-based grading.

Standardized testing, or equality-based grading, is harmful to students. It’s harmful to students across the nation. It’s harmful to students globally. In my school, where there’s no coherent grading system and every teacher follows their own system, students are constantly stressing over their grades, convinced that their life is determined by a letter on a paper.

This is just one of the many unhealthy lifestyles that this grading system leads to, which inevitably deteriorates a student’s mental health. Standardized grading prepares students for standardized tests, not for real-world situations6, which is what we need. Instead, it leaves brilliant minds curious and scared of the busy world running around them. Standardized grading once made students like me feel lonely, and I know I am not alone when I say this.

Regarding the other grading style, in my school, the closest we have to an equity-based class is my mathematics class. Our teacher acknowledges the expertise of all students by letting us “choose” what skills we want to be tested on. He gives us four skills on a test: then, the top two scores for each skill are placed in the grade and a skill can reoccur at least four times. If we are satisfied—if we think “I feel strong in this subject, and don’t need to improve my best two scores” —we can skip that skill: we don’t need to do a portion of the test. This allows us to shine in the skills we are good at, and give us more time to practice the skills we still need to hone.

Grading students based on equity gives them more meaningful grades since the grades reflect their academic performance accurately while incorporating their background or knowledge gaps. Students who need more time to complete their homework can benefit from equity-based grading since it is a flexible system that can be applied in a variety of situations.

The educational journeys of everyone are unique because of who we are. We, the public students of California, have our differences, but we work together every day to build a better future for ourselves. We require a grading system that acknowledges justice and supports everyone’s ability, regardless of their backgrounds or experiences—not a one-size-fits-all standardized grading system. We acknowledge that this is a decision not solely about policy, but also our morals, and we must strive to follow these morals every day. Ultimately, it is up to our teachers to choose the grading system they want to use to assess their students. But, it is up to us to realize that as we seek to shape the future of public education in California, we need to learn that an equity-based approach will treat all students fairly, no matter who they are.

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