The best part about my job at WestEd is when I get to work with and speak to students about their experiences in the classroom. In preparing for these opportunities, I often recall my experience as a student in the K-12 system, where the emphasis was on scores and completion as opposed to learning and collaboration. This made me feel like my classmates were my competition and sharing my thinking, questions, or approach to any subject would put me at risk of feeling less intelligent if those ideas didn’t include the correct answers or lead to the highest grades.
Through my work on WestEd’s Formative Insights team, I’ve had many opportunities to speak with students in a district whose leaders are redesigning assessments in ways that support students to understand that learning takes shape over time and that grades are not a primary determinant of their intelligence. Our work involves helping clients shift away from traditional educational approaches, where teachers are predominantly in charge of instruction and assessment, to practices that more directly engage students in the learning and assessment process. Hearing from students amid these shifts offers some powerful thoughts on how challenging and essential it is to support these changes to the student role.
In this blog, I explore students’ voices from Sunnyside Unified School District (Sunnyside), which began its journey to re-envision the student role in 2015. Their foundation for this work was the development of a district coherence framework, which outlined their leadership and educational approach to improve student identity, agency, and purpose. District leaders have established organizational processes and educational approaches that prioritized teachers gathering evidence of student learning while learning took place to foster student agency in the classroom. For example, they have adopted aligned curricula, developed a graduate profile, and integrated formative assessment to more actively engage students in daily evaluation of their learning.
Building on this foundation, district and school leaders have recently piloted and implemented a new grading system, grounded in the research from Joe Feldman’s 2018 book Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms. Sunnyside implemented a 0 to 4 rubric-based grading scale, where students’ academic grades measure student learning, separate from behavior. A significant shift from traditional grading, students are given multiple opportunities to learn from their mistakes, correct errors and misconceptions, and use feedback to improve their learning – as much as possible, students’ new learning is reflected in the students’ grade.
To better understand how the student role has shifted, Sunnyside leaders asked WestEd’s Formative Insights team to capture student reflections on their equitable grading system’s first year of implementation. In May 2023, we interviewed nine students from the three high schools in the district. The intended purpose of these interviews was to create a video for the Sunnyside community that features students’ perspectives on equitable grading, including how it has strengthened students’ academic identities and their understanding of how they learn. Below, I share quotes from those student interviews that explore three ideas about how equitable grading positively impacted students’ perseverance, engagement, and motivation. Each idea calls out shifts in perspectives on how students think about their learning in their journeys to integrate the principles and practices of equitable grading.
From Pressure to Perseverance
A key feature of equitable grading is that teachers provide students with multiple opportunities to demonstrate their understanding of the subject being learned.
“My approach to learning has changed due to the new grading system because now I feel like I can just do what I can do best, and apply that to my work rather than previously before where I would feel like I needed to try my absolute best and I needed to get an A and I needed to pass a class. It’s definitely put less pressure on me as a student.” – Alexia Velazquez, Senior at STAR Academic High School
The equitable grading system invites students to value the learning process, as opposed to the final score on a test or assignment. We know from formative assessment research on learning culture that students learn best in environments where they feel safe, comfortable, and confident. An environment where students are constantly stressed about getting the best grade promotes compliance-oriented behavior as students focus on their grades rather than what they are learning. As Ms. Velazquez shared in her quote, the equitable grading system encourages perseverance by giving her opportunities to apply new ideas during learning and to apply new learning over time, strengthening her overall approach to learning.
Engagement Through Feedback
Two critical features of equitable grading in Sunnyside are that teachers provide feedback on learning as it develops, not just at the end of a lesson or unit, and teachers provide students with opportunities to integrate that feedback.
“I feel like I’ve definitely learned in the process of giving and receiving feedback, the depth and importance that it really carries. I remember before I would just sort of give feedback just because my teacher asked me to. But now I feel like me giving feedback is a really important part of developing others’ understanding because I’ve had more than a few people tell me that after I explained something they understood it better and then I do better on an assignment. And then I just feel that me giving feedback has developed in such a way where I’ve just been able to really magnify the depth of the things that I want to do and give instead of just saying it on a surface value.” – Giovani Durazo, Senior at Desert View High School
When students are provided multiple opportunities to give and receive feedback and then apply that feedback to their learning, it teaches them the value of communicating and collaborating with their classroom community. Engagement in the classroom starts to look different because students are prompted to become more active participants in the learning process when feedback is taught as a critical component to improve their learning. In this quote, Mr. Durazo shares how he recognizes that his feedback has been helpful to others and that it strengthens his learning. Daily feedback routines are a critical aspect of equitable grading, and Mr. Durazo reminds us of the power they can have for both those who give and receive feedback.
Motivated to Learn
A feature of the equitable grading system is that both students and teachers have a greater sense of what students know than traditional grading systems that communicate what students don’t know. This can increase student motivation and engagement.
“With this new grading system, I see myself as a better student, more motivated to come to school compared to having an ABC system. Students with an F or a D, low grades in classes can feel unmotivated to come to school. It’ll feel like it’ll take a longer milestone to move up from a F to a D to a D to a C. But with this new system, I feel like us students can have a better chance and better opportunities.” – Aaron Aguilar, Junior at Sunnyside High School
Sunnyside’s mission is to develop students with a strong sense of identity, purpose, and agency so that they leave their system as effective learners who act with purpose to achieve the conditions they desire in their own and others’ lives. The equitable grading system reinforces this mission by teaching students that learning is a continuous process that requires you to work through challenges and struggles by utilizing the resources and community around you. As Mr. Aguilar shared, when students believe that they can learn and envision that they will be supported to advance their learning, this can dramatically improve motivation to learn.
These three students shared their unique perspectives on how the equitable grading system has impacted their approaches and mindsets toward learning. For Sunnyside, formative assessment is a central strategy to strengthen the student role, and equitable grading is one approach centered on engaging students in their learning and assessment. As a result, students are learning how to persevere through challenges better, be engaged in the learning process, and be more motivated learners. As educators continue to work to improve practices around more accurately measuring and assessing student learning, we encourage the inclusion of student voice to change how adults think about learning. Sunnyside students have shown us that equitable grading provides opportunities to learn in new ways and develop learning capabilities and skills so that they may become lifelong learners.
To view the full equitable grading video shared with the Sunnyside community, select the video below!