The work of ungrading is focused on asking critical questions about assessment with the goal of dismantling a dysfunctional system that does harm to students, and also teachers. In “When We Talk About Grades, We Are Talking About People,” Sean Michael Morris writes, “Deciding to ungrade has to come from somewhere, has to do more than ring a bell, it has to have pedagogical purpose, and to be part of a larger picture of how and why we teach.” The books I was reading when I first learned to teach, when I began to devise my own approaches to assessment, were bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Their words on Critical Pedagogy echo inside my own thinking about grades.
Critical Pedagogy is focused on helping students become “readers of their world,” in the words of Paulo Freire. bell hooks extends this in her writing about “continual self-evaluation.” In Teaching to Transgress, she writes, “To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.” This means acknowledging the full and complex humanity of students and also working to mitigate the harm done by systems that too often fail to see students and teachers as full humans.
A meta-analysis from Malouff and Thorsteinsson, which included data from 20 studies of 1,935 graders, found that “bias can occur in subjective grading when graders are aware of irrelevant information about the students.” What they call “irrelevant information” included sex, race, disability, physical attractiveness, or knowledge of prior performance. The authors ultimately suggest “blind grading,” the practice of grading with no identifying information about students beyond the work being assessed. But I’d argue that race, gender, and ability do not constitute “irrelevant information.” We can’t counter bias by ignoring it. Who students are is exactly relevant, and their specific contexts need to be accounted for in our approach to assessment.
Sharma and Carr found that “food insecurity is a significant factor in determining the average Math-SAT score. An increase in food insecurity lowers the students’ Math-SAT scores.” And Cotti, et. al. found that students perform more poorly on exams when they are several weeks removed from receiving food-stamp benefits. So, it’s not just whether students are food insecure that influences test scores, but the likelihood that they have received support and how recently they received that support. Heissel, et. al. found that “children displayed a statistically significant increase in cortisol level in anticipation of high-stakes testing. Large decreases and large increases in cortisol were associated with underperformance on the high-stakes test.” Acute stress leads to a large increase in cortisol, which has a direct negative effect on performance. And trauma, which often leads to dissociation, can cause a significant decrease in cortisol, also leading to lower performance. COVID-19 has certainly exacerbated trauma and anxiety around performance and testing. But the students struggling the most now are the ones most likely to have been struggling even before the pandemic. And those students (and so many of us) will likely continue to struggle.
Grades are more than just a bureaucratic abuse. I don’t use the word “abuse” lightly. I was a victim of abuse, and I’m bothered when I see the word “abuse” used as a metaphor. The voices of students, and the specific stories I’ve heard from students over the years, inhabit my work. Over the 23 years I’ve done research on grades and assessment, I’ve talked to hundreds of students about their educational experiences and hundreds of teachers about their experiences as students. I’ve heard from too many students who didn’t get help when they were struggling:
Part of the reason why I never asked for help was because I saw what my professors thought of those who did.
I dropped out of college, in large part due to the hoops I had to jump through to get my disabilities recognized.
It’s a lot easier to stay motivated when you’re not made to feel like you’re stupid or a liar. It’s a lot easier to focus on studying when you’re not focused on having to justify yourself.
I often begin workshops about grades and assessment with the questions, “how does it feel to grade? how does it feel to be graded?” The answers I’ve gotten back have been startling. And, even where I find myself unsurprised by the answers, I am struck by the emotional language and by the accounts of trauma that arise within almost every conversation I’ve had about grades.
Grades are an invention with very specific sociohistorical motivations and effects. Conversations about grades are, ultimately, conversations about power, which is why they are so often fraught, especially given how many of us have specific traumatic experiences of both grading and being graded.
A few years ago, I read a New York Times article that summarized the findings of a recent study. The title alone was enough to clench my stomach: “When Report Cards Go Out on Fridays, Child Abuse Increases on Saturdays, Study Finds.” The study (specifically of primary-school-aged children) tracked calls made to the Florida Department of Children and Families child abuse hotline alongside dates when report cards were released by public schools throughout the state. The increase in abuse following the release of a report card was pronounced when the report cards were released on a Friday, as opposed to other days of the week. This finding led one of the researchers to offer a “practical solution” (in their account of the study to The New York Times): release report cards earlier in the week. Nowhere in the study itself or in The New York Times article does the grading system itself get a sufficient sidelong glance.
What kind of assessment approach does our current moment warrant? How do we address the fact that grades as a system disrupt the already fragile communities we are working to build in education? How do we push back against those systems without putting ourselves and our own livelihood at risk? In the face of rules and restrictions that seem insurmountable, what is our ethical responsibility to students?
. . . . .
In Education for Critical Consciousness, Paulo Freire describes “dialogue” as “a horizontal relationship” that pushes back actively upon “vertical relationships,” which he describes as “loveless, arrogant, hopeless, mistrustful, and acritical.” This is the work of centering students, but not at the expense of teachers. Both must play an active role in and through this process. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he writes,
A revolutionary leadership must accordingly practice co-intentional education. Teachers and students (leadership and people), co-intent on reality, are both Subjects, not only in the task of unveiling that reality, and thereby coming to know it critically, but in the task of re-creating that knowledge.
Co-intentional education is the shared examination of education with the goal of making space for teachers and students to define and redefine that space together. Our pedagogies become something we develop with (not for) students. This depends on each of us being what Freire calls “teacher-student with students-teachers,” teaching each other, “mediated by the world, by the cognizable objects which in banking education are ‘owned’ by the teacher.” Freire’s use of the word “owned” here is important, because so many of the bureaucracies of education, grades in particular, function within a system of currency (where grades and GPAs have something akin to “exchange rates”). It isn’t enough to empower students within that system (and perhaps fruitless even as an attempt); rather, students must be drawn into the construction and reconstruction of that system.
Freire is not speaking explicitly about assessment here. Students becoming “readers of their world” means they can critically interpret their material and political circumstances in order to make effective change. Assessment is a tool teachers can use in education to help (or hinder) this process. There is little room for agency or critical interpretation of material and political circumstances when power structures and crude hierarchies are reproduced or reinforced within education, with grades as the most direct mechanism for this. Simply, students can’t learn to make effective change in their world from within an educational system they are discouraged from interrogating and powerless to change. Drawing students into critical conversation about assessment, then, is a way of helping them become readers of their world, but also, readers of their own education. This is a necessary precursor for co-intentional education.
The work of drawing students into the construction of courses, curricula, and assessment is especially important for students who are marginalized by institutions and systems, and for students who have trauma associated with their education. As a disabled, queer student, I might have attempted to assert agency over my own education, but almost always in the face of systems designed to strip me of that agency. Entering into conversation about my power as a student within those systems would have been predicated on my full personhood being recognized and acknowledged, which I have occasionally felt personally throughout my education, but never structurally. And, now, as a white male teacher with a different relationship to power in a classroom, I can grapple with my own educational history while also interrogating my own privilege and working to dismantle the structures I currently benefit from. I can only do this effectively if I do it alongside the students, and colleagues, with whom I work.
It’s far too rare that teachers (or educational institutions) bring students fully into conversation about the what, how, and why of teaching. In my own practice, I have asked students to reflect on their own learning, and to grade themselves. The work of metacognition and self-reflection, though, means more than just having students process their learning; it means asking them (and ceding space for them to) engage in much deeper questions about education and the nature of educational institutions. We need to do intentional, critical work to dismantle traditional and standardized approaches to assessment. We can’t do this work without understanding the specific contexts of the students we work with. For our work to be equitable, we can’t merely ask students to grade themselves, but must work together to interrogate and dismantle grades as a system.