<span class='p-name'>Why I’m Exploring Ungrading</span>

Why I’m Exploring Ungrading

As I was preparing for the new semester to begin, I started to think about changes I’d like to make to my courses. In most of my discussions with colleagues, my common refrain was that I was thinking about throwing out everything I previously thought about assessment.

I need to indicate for the record that I am a tenured professor in higher ed, so there is a certain amount of privilege that comes with this position. I also believe that most of my prior work in teaching, learning, and assessment has always sought opportunities to reimagine pedagogy, so this is not that revolutionary, at least for me.

I’ve also been thinking quite a bit about bias, privilege, perspective, and race in my classroom. I work in education and help prepare teachers to enter their future classrooms. One of the common refrains we hear in our program is that most of our students are middle class, white, and female. When we think about diverse students in our programs, there is generally a focus on recruitment and retention. Basically, get more diverse, intersectional people into the program…and figure out how to keep them there.

Teacher preparation programs need to prepare and support educators as they serve a culturally, racially, linguistically, and economically diverse student population. As such, I need to identify the barriers to marginalized student success and empower students, and future educators, to realize socially and racially just teaching and learning in their practice.

Over the summer, I helped BARWE present its summer series. I serve on their advisory board as they support white educators as they take on anti-racist work. In the summer series, we had a session with several diverse educators that shared why they left their teacher ed programs or ultimately left their classrooms. In short, they said that they didn’t feel welcome, or that they belonged in higher ed, let alone teacher ed.

Following the summer series, I spent time thinking and writing to make sense of my role in these problems. I noticed that many of our students of color would enter the program and start taking classes, only to slip through the cracks and ultimately drop out or change majors. I met with students to have some honest talk about the challenges and opportunities of succeeding and perhaps just surviving in higher ed.

I wanted to do more than just offer up statements about how we valued all students in our classes and programs. I wanted to try and understand what I was doing that was impacting the success and/or failure of students in my classes, especially intersectional students. This led me to question my assessment practices in classes.

Schools as Racial Spaces

In the United States, social ills such as poverty, ineffective social policies, and inequitable access to resources affect people of color most severely. This is no less true in the nation’s public schools, where the effects of poverty and insufficient and inequitably allocated resources particularly hinder the academic success of students of color. Furthermore, increased standardization and high-stakes testing in schools have created an environment that is especially detrimental to marginalized students.

As I was trying to make sense of these factors, I came across this post by Susan Lyons. Lyons indicates that educational assessment strategies and evaluation tools often provide barriers to marginalized students. Furthermore, this limits educators as they strive to realize socially and racially just teaching and learning in their practice.

Lyons indicates in the post that current assessment and evaluation methods used to measure student achievement are developed to measure student content knowledge on a unidimensional scale. This is a challenge because we know that knowledge acquisition is dependent on context and culture and is multidimensional. A unidimensional scale doesn’t take into account the factors that impact how, why, and when people learn.

We also need to acknowledge the larger systemic inequalities that impact our students and the racial, economic, and educational outcomes. Assessment systems and evaluative tools are often crude tools to further limit students of color who are more likely to be born into poverty, attend schools with fewer resources, and have teachers with fewer years of education and experience. This reminds me of what Bettina Love calls the “educational survival complex,” one that is “built on the suffering of students of color in which they are never educated to thrive, only to survive.”

Wayne Au expands on this in this piece.

It is also important to recognize that high-stakes tests are not race-neutral tools capable of promoting racial equality. At their origins more than 100 years ago, standardized tests were used as weapons against communities of color, immigrants, and the poor. Because they were presumed to be objective, test results were used to “prove” that whites, the rich, and the U.S.-born were biologically more intelligent than non-whites, the poor, and immigrants. In turn, the tests provided backing to early concepts of aptitude and IQ, which were then used to justify the race, class, and cultural inequalities of the time.

I am Part of the Problem

Part of the initial reason I explored ungrading was to reset my thinking about “what counts” in my classes. Perhaps what matters doesn’t matter. I needed to change my existing evaluation models and develop more authentic classroom relationships to envision more just practices.

This is in the context of my current work as I think about anti-bias, anti-racist pedagogy. I understand that some readers will roll their eyes and scoff at the mere mention of racism in this post, but I’m on my own journey. I’m documenting my thinking here on this blog. I think I see something at work in my classroom, and in the larger systems that govern what counts in my classroom, and I’m trying to make sense of it. First, I need to give myself permission to notice and name these elements…if that makes sense.

Ungrading, at least my first test of these models is a work in progress. The initial roots were an attempt to think about educational assessment and my own personal accountability. I recognize there are other factors that impact student learning and achievement. I also feel like our current evaluation tools and systems offer such narrow measures that they miss most of the processes, experiences, and relationships that define teaching and learning.

I’m learning a lot as I explore these spaces with my students. It’s been interesting to talk with classes about grading, assessment, identity as a learner, growth mindset, and freedom. I’ll look forward to sharing this post with my students to explain my initial thoughts about bias and privelege in our assessment and evaluation systems. I’m sure they’ll also roll their eyes. 😉

For now, I’ll close with this paragraph from the Lyons piece. It feels like it was written just for me in this moment.

Given the known, negative impacts of the use of standardized assessments on already marginalized communities, it is our responsibility as measurement professionals to step away from our reliance on the familiar toolbox for developing state assessments and explore new possibilities (e.g., valuing locally-generated information, exploring designs that support multidimensional reporting, developing content-based learning maps) that better reflect what we know about learning and better serve those who are most directly impacted by test use—students, educators, and communities.


Photo by Werner Du plessis on Unsplash

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