If lawmakers are serious about making grading fairer, they’d be proactive instead of reactive

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College campuses in the U.S. have been roiled by debates over freedom of expression, diversity, and admissions. Now, some Arizona lawmakers are pushing grading into the political spotlight. 

Last month, the Arizona Senate passed Senate Bill 1477, which would create new “Grade Challenge Departments” at the state’s three public universities. Students who believe their grades were influenced by a professor’s “political bias” would have an opportunity to have their work graded again. 

Critics of the bill point out that Arizona’s universities already have grade appeal and grievance processes in place. They also note the bill is short on details about how the new departments would function. But the bill’s proponents say that political bias has a chilling effect on campus and that students need more support. 

The bill’s sponsor, Anthony Kern, claimed that some students he met at Arizona State University “do not feel they can debate issues according to their politics or according to what they believe because they’re afraid their grades are going to be lowered.”

A driving assumption behind the bill is that current processes for adjudicating grading grievances aren’t working. But nobody has put forward data to back that up. 

Before politicians impose extra burdens on Arizona’s universities, there should be stronger evidence showing that the current practices are inadequate.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that political bias in grading is a problem that’s not being fully addressed. How could it be dealt with? 

Most lawmakers are not familiar with the ins and outs of teaching and grading, so they might favor solutions that aren’t effective. The bill proposes to add new reactive measures, over and above existing appeals processes. But universities can encourage preventative measures to stop political bias from sabotaging students’ grades in the first place. 

You can extinguish a fire, or you can stop fires from starting. The universities already have extinguishers (in the form of grievance policies) and lawmakers are trying to force another extinguisher into their hands. But for everyone seeking to limit administrative bloat in higher education, preventing grading bias should be the first concern.

As university teachers and researchers who study biases in human judgment, we’ve thought a lot about how to promote unbiased reasoning and behavior. To see how biases can be prevented, we need to get into the weeds of grading practices. We’ll explain how rubrics and anonymized grading can help educators prevent biases — political or otherwise — without government intervention. 

From kindergarten classes to Ph.D. programs, rubrics are commonplace. They spell out an assignment’s requirements, how to meet them, and how many points a student’s performance ought to earn. Although rubrics tend to be viewed as tools for graders, they are arguably just as useful for students, who are better set up to know how to succeed when rubrics are transparent and available to them. 

Rubrics make the grading process less like a black box. 

Without clear criteria set in advance, a grader’s personal preferences or expectations can skew their judgment. Ensuring graders use good rubrics cuts down on political bias. 

Of course, if an instructor designs a rubric that prohibits students from arguing for some political viewpoint, that would conflict with existing state and university policies. So, when rubrics are followed carefully, there’s no legitimate reason a student of one persuasion should be graded differently than a student of another. 

But if students feel their grades were unfair, the rubric offers a basis for follow-up evaluation and resolution. A third-party evaluator would compare the assignments to the rubric and check if the grades were fair. Rubrics not only help students by making graders accountable for their grading, they also help graders justify and defend the grades they dish out.

Another tactic for minimizing bias is to anonymize students’ work. Graders are often aware of who they’re grading — they know the identity of the student who completed an assignment. This can lead to biases if a grader has an agenda against a particular student or group. But it’s easy to conceal students’ identities on assignments by using university ID numbers, not names. Arizona’s universities already use online platforms where anonymized grading can be set up automatically.

SB1477 foregrounds political bias, but other facts about a student’s identity could also trigger different biases, including gender, racial and religious prejudices. Anonymizing students’ work can simultaneously prevent many varieties of bias from skewing graders’ judgments. 

Rubrics and anonymized grading pack a double punch for preventing potential bias in grading. When students know the criteria by which their work will be evaluated, and they know their work will be assessed independently of their identity, they can feel more confident that they’re getting a fair shake. 

While rubrics and anonymized grading can prevent biases, there are some limitations to note. For example, if a grader is biased against a particular viewpoint that shows up in an assignment, the grading could be unfairly harsh even when a student’s identity is hidden. Yet even when these tactics can’t fully prevent biases at the outset, using rubrics and anonymization together can be valuable if a grade is challenged. 

A third-party evaluator who sees a discrepancy between an assignment, a rubric, and the grade awarded to a student will seek to fix the anomaly. A pattern of anomalies might reveal a bias, but the crucial point here is that such errors must be corrected, no matter their origin.

Accusations of political bias are provocative and prevalent in our divided society. Yet the way to make grading fairer is fundamentally a lot more boring. 

Proponents and opponents of the bill should both want to see greater use of rubrics and anonymized grading. These practices offer equal-opportunity bias prevention, making it easier to detect grading mistakes. While such practices are already common on campuses, there is doubtless room for improvement. 

All that said, we’re confused why proponents of SB1477 haven’t inquired about these practices before jumping to the conclusion that bias in grading is rampant on campuses. We aren’t convinced that the reactive measures forwarded in the bill will mitigate bias more effectively than what universities are already doing. 

Given the lack of evidence of widespread bias or a demonstration that current grievance policies are insufficient, SB1477 deserves a failing grade. 

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