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2021-22 Equitable Grading Practices PLC

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted inherently inequitable practices within our educational system that, while long-standing, do not serve students. During the 2020-21 academic year, one in which many students were learning online rather than in a physical classroom, historically high numbers of students found themselves failing at least one course (Alexander, 2020; Thompson, 2020; Vaughn, 2021). Educators and schools struggled to know how to respond. While these concerns were not unique to the pandemic, given the shift in the instructional model, concerns  around grades and grading practices became exacerbated with educators and schools struggling to respond. As a way to support schools and districts in this particular body of work, in September 2021, the Oregon Department of Education (ODE), in partnership with Dell Technologies and Advanced Learning Partnerships, launched a professional learning community (PLC) initiative to promote more equitable grading practices in every classroom statewide.

Students’ experiences throughout the COVID-19 pandemic have underscored existing inequities that require transformation. Transforming grading practices at a local level must also transform instructional and assessment practices. The decision to support equitable grading practices was made in connection with ODE’s efforts to build capacity around the formative assessment process and coherent assessment systems. The primary goals of the PLC are for school-based teams to:

  • Determine their vision for grades and grading practices;

  • Reflect on educators’ current practices with this vision in mind;

  • Integrate research on grading practices into their learning;

  • Create an action plan to continue to work toward equitable grading practices; and

  • Collaborate and share their experiences with others throughout the state.

Conversations between ODE and consultants from Advanced Learning Partnerships, supported by Dell Technologies, began in May 2021. The consultants, Dr. Robert Dillon and Dr. John D. Ross, have experience in adult learning design as well as building and nurturing online communities. These consultants joined a small team of ODE specialists to form a design team. The goal was to develop a framework for a statewide PLC facilitated locally that would engage school teams in exploring equitable grading practices from the needs and perspectives of Oregon educators, students, and families. 


Launched in September 2021, active exploration of the resources was expected to last through December 2021; however, teams were invited to participate at their own pace and embed the resources and experience into their existing professional learning and management structures. ODE anticipated a continuum of local knowledge and experience — some teams that have been engaged in equitable grading practices could complete the suggested activities early, while others may continue to explore them into Spring 2022. During the Summer 2021, ODE staff promoted the PLC through presentations at conferences, in internal and cross-organizational meetings, and through targeted communications through various offices.

In order to increase the likelihood of success, the design team agreed that school-based teams would create more sustainability than district-level teams or individual educators. Knowing that school-based leadership is vital to build focus and sustainability, participating teams ranged in size from 3-8 participants with all teams including a school and/or district administrator. The roles of team members also varied, from classroom educator to instructional coach to other school and district-based leadership. Each team utilized a team lead (usually the school administrator) to facilitate the interactions of their local team, serve as a single point of communication with the design team, and steward the eventual creation of an action plan. Over 240 educators participated from 37 school teams across 26 local school and education service districts. In all, nearly one out of every eight Oregon districts participated in the PLC.

Initially, the design team worked to build consensus around equitable grading practices and the connections with balanced assessment systems. This was done through the exploration of research and practitioner literature on the topic, including publications by Dr. Thomas Guskey, Dr. Susan Brookhart, and Joe Feldman. These conversations and research led to the co-development of online learning modules that could be used in schools and districts across the state.


Working from experience, the consultants from ALP proposed to ODE that the PLC would be most effective if educators had some incentive to participate in the learning, and some level of accountability was promoted. Educators’ experience during the COVID-19 pandemic created interest and a need to explore the topic, and a graduate continuing credit opportunity was arranged with an Oregon university for interested participants. Because a new community requires structure to succeed, initial accountability was provided in the structure and flow of the learning modules, which helped participants understand what was expected of them and by when. Within the modules, the design team incorporated and modeled formative assessment strategies, such as the modeling of clear learning targets and success criteria and providing options for self- and peer-monitoring of one’s own growth.


In total, the design team co-developed five modules on ODE’s instance of Canvas that utilized discussion boards and built-in reflection tools. The work of this PLC was intended to be done within existing school PLC structures, such as a regular late start or early release. Each module was originally designed to span two weeks, but teams had the flexibility to adapt the modules to their own timelines. Modules contained pre-meeting activities, such as readings or reflections, in which each participant could engage before meeting in person. During in person meetings, team participants would discuss and challenge existing ways of thinking, engage in shared learning experiences, and create artifacts of their work. One such artifact from each team was a post to the Canvas discussion board for each module, summarizing key learnings and next steps.


The design team facilitated a statewide all-PLC gathering at the end of each module, roughly every two weeks. These hour-long optional meetings created space for participants to engage with others across the state who were doing similar work. Two of these gatherings featured Oregon educators or teams sharing artifacts of their learning journey. The collaboration and dialog among participants was filled with inquiry, encouragement, and support. The design team received feedback from numerous participants that these synchronous sessions helped keep them engaged and motivated to continue in the work.

  1. Create “right-sized” learning modules with clear learning objectives. A guiding principle of the design team has been to base the learning objectives of the PLC on research and evidence. This has required the design team to synthesize a large research base stretching back more than 100 years into a manageable size for school teams with limited capacity. To avoid overwhelming participants, the design team selected some key entry points and created five learning modules with clear learning goals and success criteria. The intent has been to focus school teams on the most promising practices in order to avoid being swayed by practices that may be common, popular, or entrenched in local school cultures but are not supported by evidence of effectiveness.


  1. Identify a coordinator for the PLC. Each school team has had a designated leader to serve as a point of contact for the design team at ODE, communicate with local participants, and, usually, facilitate the interactions of the team. Equally important to the success of the PLC has been the required engagement and participation of school and/or district leaders in the process. Many of the grading practices are within the locus of control of educators, yet many require more comprehensive dialog across the system. Furthermore, analyzing and transforming grading practices is an adaptive challenge that requires the commitment of many stakeholders across several school years. The intent of the learning modules has been to start reflection and dialog that school and/or district leaders can continue to sustain long past the duration of the PLC.


  1. Create opportunities for interaction and integration. There has been no intent to “teach” people about equitable grading or tell them what to do through a lock-step curriculum. Instead, resources—including access to people—have been provided to support educator teams as they explore equitable grading in their own local context. The focus has been on meeting educators at their current levels of understanding and building their capacity to explore practices through conversations with their colleagues about equitable grading. The most successful learning has occurred among teams that have integrated “head, heart, and habits” into their reflections. For example, one learning module asks participants to conduct empathy interviews with students to better understand the impact of grading practices on students, their identities as learners, and their learning.


  1. Balance the learning opportunities within the modules with an action-orientation. While the structure worked best for schools with existing PLCs, participating teams reflected a continuum of local experience, structure, and practice. Despite the structure (which included reviewing materials provided by ODE, exploring internal practices in light of the resources, and later sharing with the full PLC), there was still a good deal of flexibility and differentiation within module content. And, of course, teams had flexibility to not follow the two-week structure if it didn’t meet their needs. Because the topic can be challenging to discuss, teams were supported and celebrated for their contributions at their unique levels of engagement and comfort. 


  1. Create the safety required for open and honest dialog. Grading practices are incredibly personal, and they are often overlooked amidst other equity initiatives. Transformative work takes time, energy, communication, and transparency. PLC leaders should elicit dialog to surface participants’ beliefs, create a student-centered frame, interrogate current practices, and model vulnerability. Where possible, include the perspectives of students and families.

  2. Regular interaction between and among teams is helpful. If multiple teams are participating in a PLC within a district or region, it can be a powerful experience to share learning, exchange feedback, and encourage continued progress. Throughout the PLC, opportunities to interact with participants from other teams led many different team members to share powerful reflections about equitable—and inequitable—practices in their schools. One middle school team lead, a 20+ year veteran educator, shared: "This is probably the most exciting thing I've ever done professionally.”

  1. Equitable grading is a topic educators are highly interested in. The desire and passion among educators for exploring equitable grading practices has remained high throughout the PLC. Initial attendance far exceeded expectations, indicating that educators in Oregon appreciated the guidance and support in exploring their grading practices. ODE intends to keep the PLC materials available for teams in the future, as well as continue to collaborate both internally and with partners in the field.


  1. The experience works best for schools with existing PLC structures. Those PLCs were able to take the materials and work them into their routine meetings and work. Schools that did not have a strong PLC structure nor release time for professional learning struggled to try to add another commitment to existing schedules.


  1. Be strategic with online platforms. If used, a district should choose a learning management system familiar to users. It was vital that PLC participants be able to engage with each other, and the discussion board feature of an LMS is one tool that can be used for asynchronous interaction.

  2. Build flexibility and differentiation into the structure and process. Participation has been influenced by several external factors beyond participants’ control. The PLC structure has provided expectations and a level of accountability for teams, but the realities of engaging deeply while also facing pandemic-related challenges meant that some teams could not commit to the initial schedule. It’s important to enter the PLC process with flexibility in mind. Also, some participants are just entering the dialog around grading practices, while others have been actively transforming theirs for years. Opportunities for reflection and dialog should embrace the continuum of background knowledge and experience of participants.