Thinking About Assessment and Equity

Does grading help, or does it prevent, effective student learning?

Does assessment, rather than help students improve, simply reinforce already-existing inequities–the same inequities we say higher education is supposed to overcome?

How do we evaluate student work without doing damage to the climate in which learning is taking place? 

These are challenging questions, and ones that have been on my mind a great deal, even and especially since the “Covid shift” of March, 2020. When we all pivoted to online learning in that surreal moment, we were forced to let go of a number of habits that had in many ways become sort of implicitly embedded in our practice: things like non-negotiable deadlines and particular formats and styles of tests, for example. And the result was…a better situation, maybe? At least in my experience, I felt like my students were able to release some of the anxiety and fear-based stress that accompanied that difficult transition in all our lives. Forcing myself to be more flexible, to foreground compassion and adaptability with my students, helped make pandemic and Hy-Flex teaching significantly better than they would have been otherwise-and I suspect I am not alone in that. 

Indeed, there are a fair amount of faculty members and institutions who found that those types of adaptations promoted student resilience and improved learning, at least compared to what might have been the case under the sub-optimal conditions of pandemic teaching (for one example of these “lessons learned,” see this discussion from the community college sector). Furthermore, this discovery seems to reinforce the critiques of “business as usual” which had already been increasing in both volume and scope prior to the pandemic. There has been a robust corpus of scholarly inquiry devoted to this type of systematic critique and the questions it spawns. Indeed, one of the most important observations emerging from this literature is that, despite our best efforts and/or assertions to the contrary, many of the standard practices we’ve adopted in higher education actually exacerbate the very problems we claim we are solving. 

Take grading, for example. The system of letter grades used across most of the US educational landscape is, at its root, a framework for “sorting” student work. But what are the criteria for that sorting? As Asao Inoue, an English and writing professor at Arizona State, has observed:

All standards are decisions made by people for particular reasons, but they are not universal, nor are they infallible…They are just the rules we have inherited today, made by people who had the power to do so yesterday.

“Standards” are specific cultural artifacts, Inoue and others argue, and as such they represent not so much universal definitions of “excellence” or “learning” as the culturally-dominant norms and practices associated with things like, say, the amount of cultural capital a student might possess. So rather than a grade on an essay describing the the learning that occurred on that assignment, it might well instead represent only how well the student played the particular “game” of “polished writing,” for example. This isn’t something we mean to do, but it is something we often do nonetheless.

Does that mean we should get rid of grades? Some would argue that, yes, it means exactly that. But even if you aren’t in that camp, it’s still clear that a lot of what we do regarding assessment is in need of critical reflection and interrogation on our part. What “Covid learning” showed us is that it’s OK to radically reconsider the implicit norms that have shaped our practices, and that such a reconsideration can offer significant benefits to both our students and ourselves.

If you’re interested in diving deeper into these questions, here are some places to start:

Alfie Kohn’s essay, “The Case Against Grades,” is one of the foundational pieces of the “ungrading” movement in both K-12 and higher education.

Kohn also wrote the foreword to a recent collection of essays on ungrading, edited by Susan Debra Blum, which contains excellent examples of how faculty across various disciplines have adopted ungrading in their own courses.

Jesse Stommel, who spoke at our Summer Institute a few years ago, wrote a widely-discussed piece called “Why I Don’t Grade,” and he also maintains a collection of resources about equitable assessment and ungrading on his blog.

If you’re intrigued by Asao Inoue’s critique of “standards,” and what it might mean for the ways in which we assess student writing, start with his 2019 presidential address at the Conference on College Composition and Communications, and complement that video with his post, “Antiracist Writing Pedagogy: Racialized Places of Labor and Listening.”

Finally, we’ll be looking at some of these questions in our own specific institutional context Wednesday afternoon, at our second Conversations on the Core session, when the English Department will facilitate a discussion on the Written Communication (WC) iteration. Social hour begins at 3:30, and the program (and the Zoom feed) will start at 4:00. We hope to see you there!

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