Posted on May 8, 2024

Promoting Students by Banning Grades of Zero and Leaving No Class Cut-Ups Behind

Vince Bielski, RealClearInvestigations, April 24, 2024

Joe Feldman has faced many tough crowds in the course of successfully selling his “Grading for Equity” program to school districts across the nation. During the consultant’s presentations, teachers concerned that his approach lowers standards have rolled their eyes, questioned his understanding of students, and worse.

Despite the frequent resistance from teachers, dozens of districts from California to Massachusetts are giving the consultant’s ambitious project a shot. As schools face a series of crises, including a spike in chronic absenteeism and sharp academic decline, grading for equity offers a path to better grades and higher graduation rates. Its practices include the removal of behavior in calculating grades, the end of penalties for late assignments, allowing students to retake exams, and a ban on zeros as the lowest mark.

Since the pandemic, districts have been lowering standards by making grading more lenient to help struggling students, according to several studies. But Feldman insists that his sweeping overhaul isn’t part of that controversial trend. He says the practices he promotes are a matter of fairness and accuracy in an educational system that’s stacked against blacks, Latinos and other disadvantaged students.

Grading for equity, however, stirs enough dissent among teachers and parents that some districts have dropped the difficult revamp in mid-stream. They say Feldman’s reforms are a form of leniency that brings out the worst in some students, hurting the very kids he wants to help.

“What’s most troubling are the practices that lower expectations, like giving a 50 percent grade instead of a zero even when a student doesn’t attempt the assignment,” said Meredith Coffey, a former teacher and now a researcher at Thomas B. Fordham Institute who co-wrote a report on grading for equity. “If students know that they could do nothing and get 50 percent, why would they work hard? Many would do nothing.”

In some districts, grading for equity is part of the controversial agenda that’s taken hold in urban areas and seeks to wash away perceived “systemic racism” in classrooms in the wake of the George Floyd murder in 2020. In Fairfax County, a district that’s embraced grading for equity, leaders have also pushed “anti-racist” education for students and paid author and crusader Ibram X. Kendi $20,000 to give a one-hour Zoom presentation, telling staff that anti-racism means working to achieve equitable outcomes.

Like critical race theory, cops in schools, and transgender bathrooms, grading for equity is galvanizing divisions in the cultural conflict over public education. Progressives support it as a path to closing the stubborn achievement gap between rich and poor students while conservatives fear it further undermines high expectations that encourage all students to strive to improve.

A savvy promoter, Feldman frequently posts on X, expressing his excitement to schools and conference organizers who tap his expertise. He likes to plug his book, too. “Grading for Equity,” with a second edition in 2023, has sold 175,000 copies, a top-five bestseller from publisher Corwin.

Grading for equity, a term coined by Feldman, isn’t a fringe movement. Some districts adopted pieces of the program before the pandemic undermined the ability of many students to keep up academically. Since then, many more districts have embraced it.

Last year, with Feldman’s help, Boston Public Schools approved a shift to equity grading. In Oregon, Portland Public Schools is making plans to implement similar grading reforms by 2025, and thousands of New York City and Los Angeles teachers have been trained in equitable grading practices. Smaller districts in California, Nevada, New York, and other states have also adopted the program.


Feldman’s program calls for a profound change in grading practices that raises fundamental questions about human motivation. He believes the traditional practice of grading almost everything a student does is antiquated and superficial. It relies on the extrinsic motivation for points, turning students into grade grubbers, rather than the intrinsic desire to learn because the subject is inspiring and meaningful.

The consultant says the pre-eminence of grades disproportionately harms disadvantaged students, who often get dinged for missing homework, late assignments, and misbehavior – issues that can stem from a lack of parental support and resources at home, research shows.

Feldman asserts that schools have a “moral obligation” to close the achievement gap, and his fix is far-reaching: no points for daily homework and classroom behavior, eliminating the distinction in the gradebook between students who lead discussions and those who disrupt them, and no penalties for the late submission of assignments, which shouldn’t be given much weight in grading.

Grades are all about tests. Teachers assess only what really matters – learning – based on a set of well-defined standards and demonstrated on a test at the end of a unit. This summative evaluation doesn’t really count either, because students who don’t ace it get a chance to review their mistakes and take the exam again, and possibly a third time. {snip}

Here’s the kicker: Even the student who keeps failing the test, or doesn’t show up to take it, gets 50% credit. On a 100-point scale, Feldman says, a zero is disproportionately punitive for the lowest mark, when a passing grade begins at 60%.


School districts and their elected boards tout the program’s main result – fewer kids fail – and that plays well politically in many communities. In an examination of four high schools that have embraced grading for equity, non-white students had 37% fewer Ds and Fs at the end of a school year, and white students, no longer benefiting from extra credit and good behavior points, saw a 19% drop in As, according to a report by Feldman’s firm.

In Virginia’s diverse Fairfax County Public Schools, the significant drop in Ds and Fs for blacks and Latinos led to a 4% increase in the graduation rate between 2018 and 2022.

Critics dismiss such progress as a mirage produced by lenient practices that inflate low grades. Students are also getting the wrong message about the importance of meeting expectations, several teachers told RCI, leading some to blow off studying and just coast. With less focus in class, more kids are also misbehaving.

Zenaida Perez says half of the teachers in her Fairfax district, the largest in Virginia, oppose grading for equity but are afraid to speak up because they fear retaliation. “At least 30 percent of my students definitely make less effort,” said Perez, who has taught in the district for 16 years. “Sometimes they do not come to school and I still must give them a 50%. That is absolutely ridiculous.”

In some ways, Feldman’s biggest roadblock are the students, who like all humans procrastinate if given the chance. DePaul University psychologist Joe Ferrari, who has written extensively about the condition, says 20% of people are chronic procrastinators. If schools remove deadlines with penalties, he says most students would likely also delay and delay doing their work. {snip)


Consultants tap into the big bucket of funds that districts set aside for the professional development of teachers. In a study by education nonprofit TNTP, districts spent about $18,000 per teacher each year, or the equivalent of perhaps a third of their salaries, on “PD,” as it’s known.

The study and other research found that despite spending almost 20 days a year in PD sessions, most teachers don’t become more effective over time because of the training. {snip}


Several studies, including a peer-reviewed examination by Fordham’s research director Adam Tyner, have looked at what happens with learning when grading standards are lifted – test scores go up too. Tyner says students strive to meet the expectations that teachers set for them, whether high or low.

“The grading for equity advocates don’t have any research showing that their changes lead to greater learning, and that’s very concerning,” said Tyner.