Feature: Grade Distributions New Tool for Equality

Photo Credit: Allison Silverman

One of the sheets of grade distributions

At recent Shared Decision Making Site Council (SDMSC) meetings, members discussed grade distributions by teacher and class, in order to better understand how students’ experiences at M-A differ based on their race or teachers.

Gathered in the staff lounge, teachers initially expressed hesitance. At first blush, the purpose of releasing grade distributions, especially with the names of the teachers included, remained unclear. “I’m not sure what the overall point is,” said science teacher Jeffery Decurtins, echoing the questions of others. ”If letter grades matter, people are really being blown around by the wind.”

Principal Matthew Zito responded that he was beginning a conversation about “equality of experience” at M-A. The goal: a ”basic level of quality and goodness”.

He described similar students from the same families who came to M-A and had completely different experiences. Moreover, while the school makes sure both honors and lower level classes receive adequate teachers, “150 kids” in each grade who are in between “historically get leftovers”.

Students felt they were “rolling their dice” if not enrolled in honors classes, especially in 9th and 10th grade, while ”some parents felt their kids were screwed,” he said.

Two weeks later, at the next meeting, new grade distributions were brought to the table revealing the discrepancies between white and Hispanic students. The data showed the overall fail rates for Hispanic students to be higher than for white students in the same classes, with Hispanic males’ fail rates higher than those of Hispanic females. In some cases, the differences between races reached as high as 20%. Of course these patterns do not apply to all students, but they do provide evidence for previously-known trends.

“I feel like there are two very very separate issues we’re discussing here; one is about the distribution of grades and equity based on teachers… [the other is] about there being an achievement gap,” said student representative Tyler Finn, explaining the dual purpose the data could serve. “There is a massive gap.”

With talk of decreasing bias, the idea of evening grades seems on the table. Still, requiring teachers to have a certain number of As, of Bs, and so on remains controversial, and was talked of only obliquely. ”Last time I felt there was a lot of [talk of] discrepancies between As and Bs… but I feel like there [are] some glaring fail rates” that should be accounted for, commented English teacher John Giambruno.

In terms of working to close the achievement gap, “it’s not treating everybody exactly the same, because they aren’t,” said English teacher Valerie Caveney. “They didn’t have somebody at home helping them.”

Council members threw around other ideas about the best way to start a conversation about the data outside of SDMSC. ”I like the idea of curriculum groups,” said Vice Principal Karl Loosekoot. These groups, separate from standard department meetings, would function as forums for teachers teaching the same classes to discuss their respective curricula.

Throughout, concerns about the level of authority that should be given to the data surfaced. Some of the data was deemed “invalid” because of the small sample size of students in the classes. History teacher Benjamin Wellington brought up the intelligence of the students themselves, describing how varying class makeups can skew grades up or down.

However, despite potential flaws, the data can still be useful. These grade distributions are merely another tool that can be used to find a new way to look at a pervasive, multifacted problem. It is customary to review such distributions every three years, but not to the extent that they have been reviewed this semester.

In the search for equality in education, new information is always welcome; hopefully, discussion of grade distributions will be able to help move a tough conversation forward.