Public schools

'Equity' Grading Is the Latest Educational Fad Destined To Fail

Why work extra hard when you won't be able to get an A? Why try to improve when you won't get worse than a C?


Modern public-education history is littered with novel education theories that have failed so spectacularly that the terms are now used as pejoratives. For instance, when I was in elementary school in the 1960s, the "New Math" focused on teaching abstractions rather than fundamentals. You can find reams of research documenting its failure decades later, but the evidence was recognized almost immediately.

That then-new approach "ignored completely the fact that mathematics is a cumulative development and that it is practically impossible to learn the newer creations if one does not know the older ones," according to Morris Kline's 1973 "Common Core," a set of educational standards embraced by California and 39 other states in 2010. On hindsight, it also deserves a failing grade.

"Despite the theory's intuitive appeal, standards-based reform does not work very well in reality," read a 2021 Brookings Institution report. "The illusion of a coherent, well-coordinated system is gained at the expense of teachers' flexibility in tailoring instruction to serve their students." Don't get me started on some of the loopier ones: pass-fail grading, the replacement of phonics with whole-language learning, and Social Emotional Learning (SEL).

"Education in the United States has lurched from fad to fad for the better part of a century, finding ever-ingenious ways to underperform preceding generations," explained investigative reporter Joe Herring in a 2022 piece reviewing some of them. Apparently, there isn't enough productive employment for education PhDs, so they spend their time dreaming up big experiments to improve education rather than focusing on the obvious ones.

The process gains life as evidence pours in about the latest underperformance. And the latest data certainly is impressive, albeit in a depressing way. Following COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, traditional public schools (and California's in particular) couldn't rise to the occasion. Teachers' unions slowed re-openings. Test scores plummeted, especially for poor and minority students. Many students checked out permanently, as soaring chronic absentee rates prove.

Always eager to embrace easy-button solutions rather than, say, ideas that promote competitiveness and excellence, our school bureaucracies are on to some "innovative" ideas that have a ballpark-zero chance of improving educational outcomes. The new ones are based around the concept of equity. As with every education reform fad, they sound OK in the elevator pitch. Who doesn't support equity? But they will create a mess that further impedes student progress.

For instance, some Bay Area schools have approved "equity grading." It's strange to focus on grading rather than teaching, but the details are even stranger. The Mercury News reports that one district removed "the practice of awarding zero points for assignments as long as they were 'reasonably attempted.'" It also eliminated extra credit for class participation. EG offers students "multiple chances to make up missed or failed assignments and minimize homework's impact on a student's grade." Now it will be almost impossible to get an A or an F.

It brings to mind Garrison Keilor's Lake Wobegon, the fictional Minnesota town "where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average." Parents rightly worry that the new grading system will promote slacking. Why work extra hard when you won't be able to get an A? Why try to improve when you won't get worse than a C? It will create a false sense of equity—and make it tougher for colleges to recognize the best students.

Education theorists and consultants who promote this nonsense claim that it will encourage students and teachers to focus entirely on the mastery of material rather than surrounding fluff. They say it will better prepare students for the work world. Yet a lot of that so-called fluff—class participation, completing homework, handing in assignments on time—contribute mightily to such mastery.

Regarding the work world, ask my editor what he thinks if I miss my deadlines and still expect a paycheck. "Supporters of mastery-based grading say it could promote equity," notes an Education Next article. But will it improve learning and test scores? One needn't be a math whiz to know the answer.

State education officials also have jumped on the equity bandwagon. The California State Board of Education last year approved a new 1,000-page math framework that, as Education Week reported, "aims to put meaning-making at the center of the math classroom" and "encourages teachers to make math culturally relevant and accessible for all students." The framework isn't binding on districts, but it will influence everything from textbooks to teaching standards.

I'm not sure how to make mathematical computations more meaningful and relevant, but I suppose someone will write a book about its failures in a few years. Meanwhile, many parents know what succeeds: competition. But providing additional schooling options would pressure school bureaucracies and jobs-protecting teachers' unions to improve, and to them that's not a tolerable outcome.

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.