Current grading system is inequitable

by Alyssa Phillips , Contributor

Traditional grading is inequitable, proven by any amount of scrutiny. 

It’s based on colonialism, a construct that inherently privileges white students over students of color simply because whiteness is the standard by which we grade and are graded — a fact that is both historically true and one we should work hard to rectify. 

While it may seem impossible, the solution to systemic inequity within higher education is to dismantle the practice of traditional grading and replace it with more equitable systems that focus on learning instead of grading. 

Whenever the word “dismantle” enters the conversation, people get defensive and argue students need to be prepared for inequities they will face in the “real” world — one that will treat them differently based on how well they have mastered Standard Written English. 

In other words, some people believe we should continue to use an inequitable system because that’s the way it’s always been and we don’t want to change that until someone else does. 

This logic has clearly proven false when confronting historical inequities.

We can’t wait for change to happen especially when systems like this benefit the people in power. As long as those with institutional power remain untouched by an unjust grading system, we won’t see change initiated. 

Change has to start within the classroom for it to truly be equitable.

Traditional grading reinforces learning based on passing the next test or cramming for a final rather than focusing on learning as the goal. 

By assigning a letter to everything a student produces, students begin to work only for the letter grade and not for the self-awareness, learning and personal growth that should accompany academic growth. 

While inequity should be reason enough to change the way we grade and are graded, we also need to re-center learning in the classroom because learning is the goal and our current system of grading does not suggest that. Instructors need to provide students with the opportunity to learn without getting penalized for failing in the process. Refocusing on equity in the classroom is how we accomplish that. 

Understandably, abandoning traditional grading can feel both overwhelming and impossible to accomplish. However, refocusing equity doesn’t have to mean traditional grading is no longer a viable option and, thus, defunct. 

While we do have to acknowledge the systems of inequality traditional grading promotes through inequitable standards, what matters is that people do the work. 

Traditional grading will not disappear overnight (even though it should), but we can avert our attention to the students who are in classrooms disadvantaged by design rather than just fantasizing about a future without traditional grading and discussing concepts with no real application.

We need to make changes to our classrooms now — whether they’re small steps such as discussing inequity in the classroom or major steps such as implementing labor-based grading. 

Centering equity also means centering students and becoming uncomfortable with the unknown and the experimental because students deserve a system in which they can learn and succeed without having to adhere to standards designed to exclude them. 

Alyssa Phillips is a second year graduate student studying creative writing. Follow her on Twitter @alyjoye.

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