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'It's about fairness': Portland Public Schools considers grading changes to reduce bias in classrooms

The district is considering making changes focused on measuring students' content knowledge, rather than behaviors like missing assignments or turning in late work.

PORTLAND, Oregon — Portland Public Schools is considering adopting new ‘equitable grading practices’, which would change how teachers grade students.

A handout from the school district said historical data shows racial disparities in students’ pass/fail rate. 

The handout also instructs teachers to not assign zeros to assignments that are handed in late, or are missing. It also states that for students caught cheating, they are to face disciplinary action instead of having their grade be penalized.

District administrators said these changes and others would make classrooms more fair and reduce bias. 

"What it's doing is, it's assessing mastery and accuracy,” PPS’ Chief Academic Officer Kimberlee Armstrong said.

Armstrong said zeros given for missing or late assignments usually throw off the entire grading scale. The handout also instructs teachers to not give less than a 50% grade for any work that is incomplete, late or does not meet expectations. Late work would not be penalized.

"Whether or not a student does things on time is less important than what they do," Gayle Thieman, a professor of curriculum instruction at Portland State. 

In the new grading system, students would not be scored for participation and effort because administrators said these can be scored with bias. Homework and group grades would also not be graded.

Armstrong said the new grading system would make the system fairer because students have different responsibilities outside of the classroom.

"It's about fairness, it's about reducing bias, it's about considering the diverse backgrounds and needs of students," Armstrong said.

But some parents are not in favor of the potential grading system. They don’t believe the new system takes effort into consideration.

"An A is effort and an F is failing,” Lamarr Hardy, a parent of two PPS students said. “And so if a child doesn't do their work, you know they need to get an F." 

Hardy said finishing all work assigned to his children is an important way for them to learn to finish work on time.

"That's responsibility, that's how we teach our kids responsibility," he said. 

PPS instructional framework does instruct teachers to be persistent in not allowing students to opt out of assignments.

But Armstrong said for students that have shown they are proficient in a subject, they would not be penalized for not completing an assignment.

"The practicing of the skill is different than showing mastery of it,” Armstrong said. “And that's really what we want to happen."

The grading system is expected to go into effect in the fall of 2025. The district has already implemented the grading scale in some schools, and administrators said it has led to higher student motivation. It has not yet been decided if it will be for K-12 students, or just for middle and high schoolers.

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