Portland schools’ ‘equitable’ grades will fail kids who need help

Portland, Oregon, public schools are looking to introduce “equitable” grading practices — and erasing excellence in the process.

The troubled progressive city’s school district is toying with proposals to make grades more even across the board by no longer flunking underperformers and increasing the value of “non-academic factors” in the grading process. 

Among the new guidelines: no more zeroes, no more 100-point scale, no more points docked for late work and no more grade penalties for kids who cheat.

According to a memo from the district, the changes were inspired by concern over racial disparities in grades. 

The district’s Chief Academic Officer Kimberlee Armstrong told KGW8 News that the changes are “about fairness,”

“It’s about reducing bias, it’s about considering diverse backgrounds and needs of students,” she said.

But where’s the fairness in letting cheaters and slackers coast by?

Schoolbus in Portland, Oregon
Public schools in Portland, Oregon, are expected to implement the new equity-based standards next school year.

Without a doubt, some kids have tougher circumstances to overcome, or unfair barriers to straight A’s — but the school district is making an enormous mistake by telling those kids, “Yes, you can’t.”

The “bias-resistant” framework is expected to be rolled out across Portland next school year, though the district has yet to decide whether the new standards will apply to all grades, or just middle and high school students.

Meanwhile, dozens of school districts around the country have already rolled out equity-based grading measures — including in California, Iowa, Virginia, and Nevada. 

But educators are suspicious of such sweeping changes.

Dr. Meredith Coffey
Dr. Meredith Coffey says equitable grading standards enabled slacking in her classroom.
Fordham Institute

Dr. Meredith Coffey, an educational researcher and former high school English teacher in the Washington, DC, area, experienced the downsides of these policies firsthand when her district prohibited grades under 50% and required her to be more lenient with late work.

“I think that teachers in schools should be flexible and responsive to individual student circumstances,” Coffey said. “But equity is about responding to individual students’ needs, rather than just implementing blanket policies and taking away teacher discretion.”

Coffey said she had students who would pump their grades up early on in semesters only to then coast, knowing that their average couldn’t fall all that far with a 50% minimum — and she even had students say they “don’t feel like” writing an essay since they’ll pass either way.

Student celebrating a good grade
Portland’s new standards would eliminate zeroes and no longer penalize cheating students with grade deductions.

Portland can try as much as it wants to make grades more equitable — but performance will never be equitable.

It’s one thing to try to cool down pressure-cooker academic environments. Kids coming home with a B shouldn’t feel like abject failures, and academic performance isn’t everything.

But laziness, tardiness and carelessness shouldn’t be unilaterally excused. These policies erase nuance — and lump kids who are actually struggling together with those who game the system.

John Essington
John Essington, a professor of teacher education, says implementing such drastic grading changes will hurt students and teachers alike.
blackburn College

John Essington, a former high-school social studies teacher and professor of teacher education at Blackburn College in Illinois, said that, while he’s in favor of some changes to the grading system — like eliminating flat-out zeros and requiring teachers to accept late work — a shift like Portland is proposing could be seismic, creating confusion and chaos among students and teachers alike.

“It would be a great strain on a school system to just say they’re implementing this host of procedures all at once,” he told The Post. “It’s definitely more of a revolution than an evolution, and that’s not necessarily going to be beneficial.”

He added that sweeping edicts limit teachers’ decisions in their classrooms and show how bureaucratic decisions can hurt learning.

“[Districts] don’t trust teachers,” Essington said. “They don’t have faith that teachers know what they’re doing enough to implement these measures in their classroom, so they mandate it district wide.”

Assignment with an F on it
Meanwhile, hard-working students’ good grades will mean less.

Students are clever. Slackers will game the system. It’s nothing new.

Meanwhile, their classmates who grind and get the best grades they possibly can — in spite of whatever external challenges they face — should be rewarded with an accurate measure of their success. 

They should walk away with a distinguished record, not a transcript full of equity-based gobbledygook.

You know what’s not equitable? Effort, ability and execution. Portland needs to wake up to that reality.

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