Inequitable Grading Practices: Vocab Quizzes

I followed the same format of polling a large Facebook group of 12,600 language teachers on things-inequitable and grading. Of 144 participants, the overwhelming majority grade some kind of reading comprehension without a focus on individual vocab terms. Quizzing vocab (full-out or vocab section of another assessment) isn’t something I recommend doing, especially not grading it. This holds true across all content areas, not just languages. Why? That kind of focus is on the micro level isn’t necessary, and it might just be measuring a student’s short term memory. We don’t need to document any of that, nor is it particularly helpful to know. In Wormeli’s 2018 update to Fair Isn’t Always Equal, one of his principled responses is “avoid test questions that ask only for basic recall of information” (p.14). That makes sense. We can skip insignificant acts of recall and go straight to whatever the vocab is used for—the greater purpose—presumably to read or interact in the target language. That word knowledge is embedded in the greater, more-purposeful task. Why bother with both?!

I’ve written about the negative effects of reducing Latin to memorizing and “rewarding” only students with exceptional memory. You’ve got uncanny memory? Great, now let’s move on, especially for those who don’t. Memory cannot be the basis of success in schools. Skip testing that and go straight to the application of what’s supposedly contained in basic information recall. N.B. how often do teachers in other content areas observe that one student can’t recall a term, but understands the concept quite well, just as another student recalls every term but has limited ability to articulate the concept? Too often, right? Yet the latter student is “rewarded” because of our testing and grading system was designed to do so. That’s inequity. Yet what makes vocab quizzes inequitable? Why the strong statement for something that appears harmless?

Vocab quizzes are inequitable when they give a false sense of what a student knows, understands, or can do, and we assign a grade to them.

Without any grade, vocab quizzes are certainly less harmful, maybe ending up being unhelpful, or just a poor use of class time (and teacher planning time). However, vocab quizzes more often contribute to an inaccurate grade when included. When inaccurate grades negatively affect a student’s experience in school, let alone their future, the line to inequity isn’t very far. Consider the student who crams for the weekly vocab quiz and aces every single one. By the end of the term, they could have a perfect score for their 25% (or whatever) quiz grading category. Yet what about the other 75% of the course grade? That student could be providing D-level evidence of learning (grades of 60s), but the perfect vocab quizzes raise the course grade to 70. This illustrates how vocab quizzes often hide weaknesses, like struggling with the actual application of the words when reading and understanding a book, or responding to questions about some topic. I’ve had a math teacher tell me that if students didn’t get a grade for their vocab-quiz-equivalent assignments, the students “would never pass.” Yikes! That’s exactly the kind of situation we want to avoid with grading: padding it with high, yet misleading values for the sake of an A (or whatever).

It works the other way, too.

The student who never does well on vocab quizzes could have an abysmally low quiz category grade. Let’s say they don’t cram, the vocab isn’t recycled much during class, and even when it is, this learner takes a little longer to process (and acquire) language. Instead of a perfect 25% quiz category like the other student, this one could know fewer than half the words on the quizzes each week, and has only 10% of their quiz category adding to the course grade. If they also provide the same kind of D-level evidence of learning in the other 75% categories, their grade is now a 55. That’s an F.

So, you’ve got two students with D-level understanding, and/or performance of the course content, yet grading vocab quizzes in one case results in a 70, and in the other, a 55. That’s inequity, and it was caused by the teacher’s choice to grade vocab quizzes. The teacher is actually grading at the unnecessarily small micro level in this case, not the larger picture course content (i.e., all that D-level stuff, presumably reading or interacting in the target language).

BuT wHaT aBoUt…?!
Vocab quizzes are easy to make and score, sure. Can they boost confidence? Yep! But they can just as easily catch a student on a bad day. Can they be completed in no time? Sometimes! But they can just as easily take 10-20min+ of class time to administer, planning some kind of fluff or extra work (yikes!) for the fast finishers. Surely, there’s better use of class time. Bottom line, we need really good reasons for giving vocab quizzes, just like when we evaluate the kind of work we assign in class. There just aren’t too many good reasons to do so.

One thing that came up more than once in the poll comments is the effort to support certain students by providing vocab sections on quizzes as a safety net. This has good intentions, although the result could be like the math teacher: the only way a student appears successful is because of vocab recall sections (or whole quizzes).

Obviously, we want to support students. However, if Johnny can’t read Latin, but Johnny gets As for knowing some individual words, everyone in the class better get an A even if they can’t read Latin well, too. This is another case of using standards-based grading (SBG) as a lens to see the inequity. That is, if Janaiya understands what she reads moderately well, and that’s a grade of B according to the rubric of your super-generic standard of, say, “Reading,” Johnny should not be able to use the individual vocab section of quizzes to meet that standard, regardless of how well he knows the words. One student is being graded on their understanding of what they read, and the other student is being graded on whether they know what individual words mean. That’s not the same thing. Grading not-same-things is inequitable. If the grade is for “Reading,” the support Johnny needs is a more level-appropriate text, or something to do with reading. Johnny doesn’t need to be graded on basic recall. This treats Johnny as if he cannot be successful at reading, and so he’s given a basic recall task instead. That’s not even a sound practice for most IEP and 504 accommodations and curricular modifications. In most cases, students would still be expected to show they can read, just at a more-appropriate text level. The mod would probably be a tiered reading right? We wouldn’t expect to assess a completely different thing.

Best Case?
When vocab quizzes are considered fast, easy ways to get gradebook evidence to document learning, and everyone—and we do mean everyone—is scoring very high, the issue does become less about equity, especially if all the other course content being graded is just as high. Still, even with all conditions being met, we come back to questioning the purpose of vocab quizzes. Surely, we can use class time for something more meaningful, right? Don’t be seduced by assessing the micro, especially anything like grammatical forms of those individual words. Remember, they’re part of something greater, like reading, which on its own can show whether students understand certain words.

The Fine Print
If you grade vocab quizzes or have vocab-only sections are you a bad person? No, but are you grading in an inequitable way? Yeah, maybe. There have to be enough other practices to…correct…for the kind of inequity discussed above and in my other recent posts (i.e., averaging, homework/zeros, late penalties) for any teacher to be considered “in the clear,” and that very well may be the case. Then again, some teachers might have a really long road to walk down. For example, one teacher who grades homework with late penalties and averages all the scores together in a 50% grading category and the other 50% is based on 10-question fill-in-blank vocab quizzes on the 100-point scale graded on pure accuracy (e.g., responses like “I want = vult” are wrong) is using more inequitable grading practices than a teacher who does all the same but with no late penalties. Another teacher who does just as much but only grades work in class would have less inequitable practices, and so on, and so on. Removing each inequitable practice one-at-a-time moves the teacher gradually more towards equitable grading. For a lot of teachers, this move can’t be made overnight, and in some cases could take years. The key is being cognizant of as many inequitable practices as we can be, and adjust whenever possible.

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