This post was written by NCTE member Anthony Lince.
Many educators around the US are having meaningful conversations about building inclusive classroom spaces. In English language arts and first-year-writing classrooms, I’ve noticed that the bulk of these discussions are focused on diversifying the texts that are taught and read.
As a Mexican American who rarely read diverse texts in school, this change makes me incredibly happy. Students of color are going to have a chance to see themselves reflected in the stories and texts they read. This is extremely important.
But the conversations and efforts to build inviting classroom spaces cannot stop there, not if our goal is to truly include and welcome all students and help them succeed—especially students who, historically, have been in the institutional margins. In speaking on the work of researcher James A. Banks, Tricia Ebarvia notes that diverse texts do little to change the inequities in our schools. In fact, Ebarvia further contends, diverse curriculum might just mask larger systemic issues that need to be resolved.
This isn’t to say that diverse texts aren’t important. They are. But we simply must do more. We need to challenge harmful systems that continually exclude and harm our students of color and multilingual students. And what has hurt these readers and writers the most in our classrooms? Grades.
In talking about the barriers that students of color and multilingual students often face, Mike Rose points out that grades pass “judgments about [students’] ability . . . at a very young age, and those judgments, accurate or not, affect the curriculum they receive, their place in the school, the way they’re defined institutionally.” Eventually, students internalize the judgments passed down by their schools, an issue that is particularly problematic for students of color and multilingual students, as they are disproportionately assigned low grades (even more so now during the pandemic).
Those low marks, then, aren’t just a judgment on the work and ability of particular students in a given class, but rather a judgment on who these students are as people—and they are, if their grades are taken as the indicator, failures.
To make matters worse, traditional grading systems don’t just affect students’ perceptions of themselves; teachers, too, start to hold negative beliefs about students of color and multilingual students and their ability to succeed in school. We might say that our grading systems are fair and objective, but biases often enter our evaluation practices. For instance, a recent study conducted by David M. Quinn suggests that “racial stereotypes can influence the scores teachers assign to student work.”
Thus, when marginalized students reach our classrooms, it’s no wonder if they have negative relationships, identities, and emotions related to reading and writing. Though we say, “Our classrooms are inclusive spaces, and everyone has the chance to succeed,” our assessment practices indicate otherwise, which leads students to not believe us. Our judgments, accompanied by letters and numbers that mark students as deficient, have destroyed students’ faith in the educational system.
So, what can we do to build trust in our classrooms? I think we need to stop grading our students.
But we can’t just stop grading our students on their assignments, can we? Actually, we can. In fact, many educators are currently not grading (or are ungrading) in their classrooms. There are a lot of options to choose from when deciding to ungrade, including labor-based grading and mastery-based grading.
In my first-year-writing courses at the university level, I’ve chosen to use a labor-based grading model (based on the work of Asao Inoue, whose scholarship focuses on antiracist assessment practices). I chose this route because “labor-based grading contracts,” as Inoue asserts, “attempt to form an inclusive, more diverse ecological place, one that can be antiracist and anti–White supremacist by its nature.” With this methodology, only measurable labor is used to calculate a student’s final course grade, and no letters or numbers are placed on student writing or other work.
Many educators report that, without grades, students are able to focus on their learning in meaningful ways and put forth much more effort in their work. In my courses, I’ve noticed that too. I’ve also noticed that going gradeless can lead to a classroom environment that fosters trust—trust in the teacher and trust in peer-to-peer relationships. In this piece, I won’t speak much about the numerous other benefits that ungrading leads to in our classrooms. That’s because, first and foremost, we need to focus on gaining our students’ trust, especially when we’ve lost it from our most vulnerable students. Only when every student feels that the classroom is an equitable, safe space can we focus on learning.
These days, when I provide feedback on writing, I don’t have to worry about assigning a grade that gives no substantive information, and I don’t mark students down for not meeting a single dominant standard, one that often disadvantages multilingual students and students of color. Instead, I focus exclusively on giving useful feedback during the writing process, on building meaningful connections with my students, and on having genuine conversations that engage with their ideas. No longer do I see student writing with a deficit lens; rather, I look at it for what it was trying to accomplish in that moment and what it could accomplish.
With this approach, students who have been hurt the most by traditional grading practices are able to come into our classrooms knowing that they can trust our feedback, trust our words, to help them improve as writers. They can let go of those past judgments and just focus on the productive labor that will lead to learning. Diverse students will also feel comfortable knowing that the many Englishes they bring to our classrooms (for example, African American English) are embraced, not turned away, because the dominant standard is not a barrier anymore. This gradeless environment allows the teacher-student relationship to flourish in authentic ways.
Student-teacher relationships aren’t the only dynamics that improve in our classrooms. The classroom environment as a whole improves as well. Grades usually lead to partitions among our students; they create detrimental hierarchies. Because low grades are more often given to students of color and multilingual students, these structures and divisions in our classes often grow along racial and linguistic lines, which could perpetuate negative assumptions and beliefs about the ability of these students to succeed. When there are no grades on assignments—especially on essays—there’s an opportunity for those hierarchies to come tumbling down.
In my classes, I’ve seen that students don’t divide themselves by arbitrary standards. They are able to focus on their peers’ ideas and writing without those marks and judgments getting in the way of the dialogue. In an end-of-semester survey on labor-based grading, one of my students said, “Working with peers felt more real than in other English classes with grades. We weren’t focused on standards, on who’s better, just on the writing and how to help each other improve.”
The entire classroom community, then, benefits from not having grades in the class. In many ways, labor-based grading sets the foundation for a positive classroom community, one that can be built on trust.
Because grading practices have gone mainly unquestioned, our students have suffered, and many continue to suffer today. It’s time to end the harm that grades cause. All of our students deserve to have meaningful, equitable places of learning, strong classroom relationships, and classroom communities that are truly inclusive and supportive.
As Adam Rosenblatt has commented, if we choose to ungrade in our classrooms, we can finally start challenging “one of the academy’s most pervasive and unquestioned forms of structural injustice.” Let’s ungrade, so we can make that happen today.
Anthony Lince is a writer, Latinx scholar, husband, and dad. He’s pursuing a master’s degree in English with an emphasis in rhetoric, and he’s also teaching first-year-writing at San Diego State University. His research centers on antiracist assessment practices. Twitter: @LinceAnthony
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