Equitable Grading at Sunnyside
Updated: Jun 20
By Gary Chapin and Laurie Gagnon
We are pleased to share with you today a piece from our storytelling series of reflections and noticings coming out of our convening in Tucson!
Please stay tuned for more writings from our team of storytellers and revisit the blog here to see them all in the coming months.
In February, at the Assessment for Learning Convening in Tucson, AZ, Gary Chapin and Laurie Gagnon climbed on a bus with sixteen other educators to go on an excursion to Sunnyside High School. The ALP Convening had partnered with Sunnyside Unified School District for this event. and had planned five different excursions for ALP participants to go into Sunnyside schools to. The excursion we went on was called “Equitable Grading Practices,” led by Matthew Craft and William Kotter. These two have been at the head of a process to make grading practices more equitable across the district.
Gary: Hello, Laurie! I’m glad we can continue engaging on this, especially since the “grading practices” discussion plays such a prominent part in your work and mine. I found the work at Sunnyside High School interesting for a few reasons.
Laurie: Hello, Gary! Likewise, it’s important to reflect on our experiences and carry forward what we learn. Too often we are rushing to the next thing and miss the chance to synthesize our ideas and wonderings. I’m eager to hear how you are thinking about our time at Sunnyside HS.
Gary: They’ve based their work on the literature – specifically Joe Feldman’s Grading for Equity – but they’ve picked a few entry points, not trying to do everything at once. They’re eighteen months into their process and, according to their own documents, are working towards a system based on Feldman’s three principles. 1) Grades accurately describe what the student knows; 2) Grading is resistant to instruction and implicit biases and actively counteracts historical inequities; and 3) Grading supports and draws upon students’ intrinsic motivation. Specifically, this means they’re developing policies around multiple opportunities to demonstrate learning, the role of the ZERO, eligibility, and work-habits stuff.
Those four things would keep any school busy, and one of the charming bits of their presentation was a slide where they showed their goals and timeline. It showed them planning to be done with all of that by year one. Matthew Craft commented, “That’s how naive we were.” They’ve revised their goals and timeline since. It was a nice moment, and the audience felt it because we’ve all been there.
Laurie: I remember that moment, too! It brought home that the work is ongoing and usually takes more time than we anticipate. One of the big mindset shifts in this work lies in accepting that it is fundamentally about adaptive change to our culture of school and learning. It takes time. We need to be attuned and responsive to the needs of the people enacting and experiencing the change. I appreciated their candid vulnerability about their journey.
Gary: One thing I want to comment on, but I don’t quite know how to express it. Craft, Kotter, and all the presenters, including kids and teachers, seemed a little worn down by the change process. I hesitate to say, “beaten up.” The conversations for the past eighteen months were designed to create an inclusive and transparent process, but they also seem to have been hard. I identify with this because, in my own past, I once facilitated a grade book change process that, by December, had taken a toll. It was hard! Which is what I’m saying: Craft, Kotter and the others at Sunnyside High School are doing a hard thing, and right now they are at a very hard point in the conversation. But they are persevering.
The fact that something is hard – and the fact that something is especially hard right now – is not evidence that you should do something different or that you should change course. The naive part of me wishes there were a way for SHS to go over, around, or under the hard part, rather than having to go through it.
Laurie: While we might tell ourselves the goal is for everything to go smoothly, I think the real goal in making a hard, but worthwhile change, is that we support people through the challenges of change to get to the celebrations of success. It’s also notable that the equitable grading changes are happening across the whole district. It made me think about scale and how to bring a thoughtful urgency to the pace of change. On one hand, I worry about the capacity of different building-level leaders – and their teachers – to implement a change that could feel top down, especially if the leaders are in progress on their own understanding and mindset shifts. On the other hand, I admire the district’s coherence framework and their leadership’s commitment to equity across all of the schools in SUSD. Leadership is situating the change within a larger effort sparked by their formative assessment journey.
Gary: Is it possible to have a district-wide change, in a district of around 14,000, without it feeling top down? This is one of things about scale that’s hard to work with. I have heard of districts bringing teachers around. Hall-Dale Schools, in Maine, had a five year plan during which every teacher went through a series of three PD cycles to be introduced to and gain proficiency in competency-based practices (this was 2006). Over that five years, they also did innumerable book groups. Their PLCs (K-12 content area teams) focused on the change. The school board did learning retreats so that they’d truly understand and support what was going on. Essentially, the only pedagogical conversation happening in the district for that time was about competency-based practices, and because it took place over five years, teachers who didn’t want to work that way tended to leave. If someone were still there after the five-year process, then they had, de facto, opted in.
The leadership challenge there was maintaining a consistent level of urgency and vision over time. This is hard since, as we both know, new ideas sometimes die in education not because they fail, but because they become boring. The attention wanders.
Laurie: One thing that has been on my mind about the visit is how to balance staging the change process so you meet people where they are and also getting to some sort of inflection point where the change is making a clear difference in moving towards an equitable learning system. Feldman’s work is really helpful in laying out the three pillars of accurate, unbiased, and motivating grades with concrete, practical moves to make. There’s also a lot of needed changes to instruction and assessment to support those moves. It’s impossible to do it all at once, and yet you want to keep some level of awareness that there is more work to be done to get to your goals without it becoming overwhelming. There will inevitably be bumps along the way with lessons to learn and adjustments to make.
Gary: Along with the theory of change, and the content of the change – which leaders a SHS seem to have in hand – there’s the experience of change. I don’t know that a lot of people have gone through an experience of intentionally changing an organization in some fundamental, values-based way. We have experience starting organizations, and we have experience ending organizations, but the experience of changing organizations in an important way and succeeding is not one that most people have. It can be surprising, fascinating, and distressing when you wade into it for the first time, especially if the organization is successful at some level (but needs to be more successful at more levels). Helping face this experience is the value behind works like, Leadership Without Easy Answers, by Ronald Hiefetz. It’s also the value of what we saw at Sunnyside High School. I am grateful to Matthew Craft and William Kotter.
Laurie: That’s a lot of change, Gary! Kidding aside, I am also grateful to our hosts, the teachers and students who joined us for a panel discussion, and to Sunnyside Unified, for opening up their doors to us. I hope we get to hear more as their story unfolds and that the next chapters include continued and deepening support for educator learning, moments to celebrate as the culture shifts to a greater focus on learning rather than grades, and new insights into where this work leads SUSD next.
About the Storytellers
Laurie Gagnonjoined the Aurora Institute in 2022 as theCompetencyWorks Program Director. She leads the work of sharing promising practices shaping the future of K-12 personalized, competency-based education (CBE). Her work includes identifying trends; conducting and facilitating research to answer critical questions facing the field; and disseminating those findings widely. She first became involved in the Assessment for Learning community as a grantee while leading the Quality Performance Assessment program at the Center for Collaborative Education. Laurie began her professional life teaching English in Japan and high school history in the U.S. She lives in Somerville, MA with her partner, young son, and cat.