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Grading for Equity: One School’s Approach to Increasing Student Ownership and Success

Grading for Equity: One School’s Approach to Increasing Student Ownership and Success

Equity  |  Strategic Planning  |  New School Design

This school year, Portland Public Schools (PPS) launched a multi-year strategic plan for educational equity, inclusion, and excellence with the core belief that the student experience needs to be reimagined. PPS’ district-wide focus spotlighted the middle school experience, where data revealed – regardless of metric – that students are not being adequately prepared for high school and beyond. Meisha Plotzke, Senior Director, Middle Grade Academics and Middle School Innovation and Redesign, partnered with Education Elements asking, “How do we redesign the middle-school experience so that every student, and in particular our Black and Native students, deeply engages in strong instruction, with grade appropriate assignments, grounded in high teacher expectations, and personalized, integrated supports?”

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To answer this question, PPS and Education Elements established a cohort of schools to incubate innovative solutions to these complex challenges that would, in turn, inform system level scale to foster responsive middle school redesign. Mt. Tabor Middle School, located in southeast Portland serving 650 students, leveraged their cohort experience to pursue among other strategies – school-wide implementation of proficiency-based grading.


Tonya Arnold, Principal at Mt. Tabor, shares her reflections on what her team has learned this year:


Why the shift to proficiency-based grading and why now?

“...Deeply rooted concerns about grading came out over the course of the 2020-21 school year in the depths of the pandemic. Teachers saw, more closely than ever, into the lives of students, saw the barriers of access and support, and had to rethink what it meant for students to be successful in their courses. It became imperative for all of us to be flexible, to identify what it was that students needed to know and do to demonstrate mastery of concepts.”


“We talked as an instructional leadership team last spring about where we wanted to go as a building – what it was we needed, and wanted to change to truly fulfill our vision… The subject that came up time and time again, consistently, was creating consistent and equitable grading practices… We have a strong and highly motivated team from four core content areas that is leading the charge with targeted PD and planning, and we are starting to move the dial for students.”


How has proficiency-based grading impacted students?

“In classes where teachers have already made the shift to proficiency-based grading on summative assessments, students appear to feel a greater sense of ownership over their performance. There are fewer questions about how they received the grade that they did, and empowerment that the grade is not necessarily the end of learning. They know they have access to retakes and revisions… the grades we give students accurately reflect what students know and can do, minimize biases that show up in traditional grading practices, and motivate them to continue pushing toward grade level mastery


If we are going to improve achievement for all students, but in particular for our underserved students and students of color, we have to be able to look at accurate unbiased data and make real decisions about how to ensure that they are given every opportunity and support to reach those standards.”


What changes in teacher practice have you seen since implementing proficiency-based grading?

“This year, our changes have been small and incremental. We took the first semester of the school year to read excerpts from Grading for Equity by Joe Feldman and engage in conversation across grade levels and content areas to discuss those concepts and build consensus. By the start of Semester 2, we as a school had identified five smaller changes to make our grading more equitable: no zeros, no extra credit, no group grades, alternative consequences for cheating, and flexible timelines for work completion without penalty. We continue to work toward our big shifts coming in the fall with the implementation of proficiency rubrics, proficiency summative and report card grades. Many teachers are already making these shifts now, and our team is thoughtfully developing a consistent schoolwide plan for the fall.”


What is one lesson learned you’d share with schools considering proficiency-based grading?

“Shifting to a complete proficiency based system is a monumental undertaking, but moving toward more equitable grading practices is not… Find out what your teachers are already doing, celebrate those equitable practices, and work to find grassroots consensus about the first steps. Then, carve out the time to read and talk and learn together as a staff… as we’ve been able to communicate these shifts to the entirety of the school community, there is a greater sense of this is what we do and what we are about at Mt. Tabor.”


Addressing deeply rooted beliefs and complex challenges requires time, resources, and support. It often requires staff to examine practices and policies that have been in place for years. Through their partnership with Education Elements, PPS has created the space for schools to prioritize creating solutions that meet their unique problems of practice. “Through this process, we understand that equity and justice are in the details of reimagining the student experience,” says Meisha Plotzke. 

More Equity and Strategic Planning reading

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Blog: Leading with Equity: How to Take the First Steps

Blog: Four Steps to Incorporating and Responding to Stakeholder Feedback in the Strategic Planning Process

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