Grading and Bias

Brightspace Learning Management System

This year my school adopted a learning management system! We picked Brightspace and rolled it out just as school started. It was a rocky roll out at best, and a real struggle for many. Despite the rollout challenges, a pandemic, and hybrid/virtual schooling as a result of the pandemic, there are a lot of great opportunities within this system. One of them is grading. Not only can you grade things in the system, marking everything up, using rubrics and more, but you can anonymously grade to eliminate bias.

My history with grading bias

As a high school student I used to really want to take the plunge and write a truly atrocious essay, or submit subpar work and see if I still got an A. I was a strong student with a great work ethic, and by my junior year I started to think that it really didn’t matter what I submitted. I’d still get an A. Despite great intentions, I never had the courage to try it.

I remember one high school grading experience so well! One was in grade 9 in Biology. We had a science fair project and my project was something to do with plant or milk. I honestly can’t remember which because there were so many science fairs in my life! This one made it to the NYS Regional Science Fair project. Why? It was beautiful. The presentation was gorgeous and artistic. I drew the data for the experiment (since I didn’t actually do the experiment, I created a sob story about not being able to get pictures and my teacher believed me). I learned early that presentation matters and at least in High School it can hide subpar content. I didn’t intentionally blow off either assignment – I just didn’t have the discipline to do it. Was it biased grading? Did the teacher feel bad for me? Did I actually do a better job than my peers and someone had to make it to regionals? I truly don’t know.

Bias in general

Last year I hosted a TED Talk club for a crew of students during lunch. We watched a talk about Bias and how much it affected job applications – from the resume to the interview and also how it affected classrooms. We listened to a TEDxPSU talk given by my niece’s professor about bias. One standout thing about middle school grading. “When math exams are graded by their teacher, boys outperform girls.” When the exams are graded blindly, girls outperform boys.”

Back to today

I try not to have bias when I’m grading, but I am aware of the outside of school struggle, if someone is having a bad week, if they have to work hard to get it and more. I am always working against those things that fall into the bias category. I like to think that I wouldn’t negatively score something because I think that the student didn’t try, but I know we all have some unconscious bias.

So to combat bias, I tried my first anonymous grading assignment this week for my Algebra class. I LOVE this option in Brightspace.

This is what it looks like. See in the upper left – it would normally give the student name but says anonymous user instead.

What worked well.

  • I had no idea who anyone was with the exception of one student’s work where they included part of themselves in the picture.
  • Because I had no idea who anyone was, I was able to comfortably grade against the standard using the rubric I set up. My brain was free to focus on the work and the work only. I wasn’t thinking about whether a student had a hard week. I wasn’t thinking about whether the student struggles typically and whether or not this was good or subpar work for them.
  • It felt less personal. I feel like with anonymous grading I COULD have a high school intern learning how to grade without fear of the student knowing about how my students are doing.
  • More on the less personal part. I think it is very hard to grade papers when you are a really feeling person. It almost hurts me physically to take points off from students who I know worked SO hard. I find myself searching and searching for ways to give points to students when they are struggling. I feel like the students get shortchanged when I feel this way and give them too many points. It is just easier to be impartial when you don’t know who someone is. After all, there’s a reason your own teacher can’t grade your State Test or end of year NYS HS assessments!

The struggles in the system:

  • It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to email the students who didn’t submit to remind them. So, when only 10 of 17 students submitted I had to remind everyone which gummed up every student inbox when it only needed to reach 7.
  • This was a two fold assignment. They did the work in Delta Math but showed their work on paper. That was where the rubric came in. Thus, I could tell that 15 of 17 students actually DID the work, 10 submitted in Brightspace. Why this is a problem was that the way I set up anonymous grading, I couldn’t go in and mark everyone else – there was a spot in the rubric for “completed the work in Delta Math but didn’t submit” and I couldn’t check that box. Luckily, I could bypass that and look at my rubric and enter things directly into the Brightspace grade book. My suggestion for Brightspace is to let the teacher turn this setting off once the submissions are graded so you can “clean up the mess” so to speak and reach out to students missing work. I understand it ultimately undermines the system, but it also makes it hard to use with 8th graders.

Will I use this again?

Most definitely! I think that it is my job to make the submission process VERY clear (something that will be much easier next year when we’re not in the middle of a fast rollout of new stuff) and explain the purpose for this. At the very least it will be incredibly helpful in my Algebra class. I don’t get to grade their end of year test and that will help them get used to the fact that I can’t give them extra points because “I know they worked hard” or for any other reason. I’d like to use it in my Math 8 as well, but I have to really improve submission success to do this.