James Ford: Our grading system is inherently inequitable, and it’s time to imagine something different

photo credit: Alvin C. Jacobs

North Carolina State Board of Education member James Ford made the following comments at today’s meeting to explain his opposition to the grading policy the board was considering, urging his colleagues to “disrupt what has heretofore been a really inherently inequitable system and begin to imagine something that’s different.”

You can listen to audio of those comments below:


I’m certain I’ll probably be in the minority here that I won’t be able to approve this particular policy, but I did want to take a couple moments to offer some comments and qualify my position.

I recently read an article in the Washington Post about how COVID-19 has laid bare the inequities of the public education system, and it used the framing of renowned education researcher Gloria Ladson-Billings, who instead of talking about “achievement gaps” she coined the phrase “the education debt” that speaks to how society owes students from historically marginalized groups because they’ve been left behind as a result of, you know, historical, economic, political policy decisions.

It’s important to acknowledge that on our best day in North Carolina our public schools don’t serve all of our students well, and I think we all can acknowledge that and recognize that. What the virus has done though, in the midst of this global emergency, in the way that it’s disrupted our education, it’s not only exposed these inequities but it’s exacerbated them.

In other words, those who were already disadvantaged by the former arrangement are even more so now. We’ve done our best as a board, I have no doubt, to try to account for these inherent flaws in our system in such a strained environment. I don’t doubt that, I know that for a fact. We’ve had to respond really quickly and definitively in unprecedented times and a dynamic environment, and this is uncharted territory. And it’s precisely because it’s uncharted I can’t support the idea of either grades or GPAs for students at this moment in time. 

Whatever the functional utility of the grading system is, whatever it’s designed to tell us about the mastery of content, it’s been so compromised now that it invalidates the very meaning of it. What does it mean to score an A or B, in this atmosphere? What is the usefulness of that metric, when we haven’t even completed the course content?

It’s hard for me to gather, I know we have a system where students are justifiably extrinsically motivated by a grade or quality points as ways of gaining competitive advantage and demonstrating rigor and college entry, etc. But in a global pandemic, where all students do not even have access to an equitable learning environment, I cannot in good conscience give a supposed choice to receive a letter grade because due to circumstances beyond students’ control, it’s not a real choice at all.

The very spirit of equity demands that we run all of our decisions through a set of screens or questions.

Some examples of that would be:

Who most benefits from this proposal and why?
Who does not benefit and why?
What might be the unintended consequences for marginalized groups?

When I do that, it’s clear to me that while it would certainly benefit students who are already positioned to perform well with the resources and opportunities for learning, those without the same level of access would be further disadvantaged.

And it may appear as if it’s a punishment or a harm to those already enrolled in the courses, AP, IB, CCP, who have done the work to get here for sure. But I’d submit there’s a difference between actual harm and just not being helped, in a radically unstable environment.

So I’d further just like to challenge us to think altogether differently about the culture of grades and the system of infatuation with GPAs that has been facilitated throughout the years and throughout the decades.

If ever there was a time to truly focus on intrinsic motivation of students and on the mastery of content versus symbols of merit it must be now.

I don’t think we’re going to be returning to any semblance of normal, and the truth is, for most working adults, we don’t get grades anyway. We get performance evaluations–we talked about that as part of our conversation today–to analyze our development against a set of competencies.

It’s obvious I have a bias here in that I don’t believe in the whole notion of grades to begin with. But I’ll conclude by saying this:  

I realize that in all likelihood this measure’s going to pass, and I don’t question the motivation of any of my colleagues here on the board. I know we’re all trying to do the best we can given the circumstances. And also, to all those who have written in and communicated your thoughts, I appreciate you. That’s exactly what you are supposed to do in this environment.

But I want to push us ideologically to disrupt what has heretofore been a really inherently inequitable system and begin to imagine something that’s different. That really reliably measures what students know and focuses on content mastery. Because we do owe an educational debt, and so long as we continue to push down this path, it feels to me like we’re just running up the balance on the backs of those who are already on the margins.

And I hope we can begin to center those students in the ways we make decisions going forward.

5 thoughts on “James Ford: Our grading system is inherently inequitable, and it’s time to imagine something different

  1. I will be honest and say I am divided on this content. One breath wants to say “you want every kid to get a participation trophy” but the next breath is saying yes oh yes please come up with a way I can gauge my kids aptitude and learning under ME. The parent. But then some days I don’t want to know this.

  2. Thank you for your insight and leadership Mr. Ford. We are grateful to have you speak openly about the desperate need to change educational practices in this state and throughout the nation. Continue to be a voice for the voiceless and a champion for the hopeless!

  3. Having taught EC for many years, I have always advocated an IEP for everyone. For students with strong skill sets, move them through as dictated by s/k/a. For those with gaps, back it up and fill them before moving onto the new material. If a student can graduate at 16, then they are ready to move. If a student is 20, then it is excellent that he/she has the requisite skills to go into post secondary.

  4. I worry that those students who are working hard to learn (rich or poor) will also be left behind because of low standards. CMS has done a great job offering learning packets as well as virtual challenges and lessons. It doesn’t seem that all students are taking advantage of the opportunities provided. Parents are a real key here and need to step up to provide their kids with high standards. Easy? No it’s not easy and every teacher in CMS can tell about this part of their job….motivating unwilling learners needs to be a shared role with families.

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