Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessing Grading in the Differentiated Classroom

As a 25+ year classroom teacher, I had come to embrace many of the values and practices Wormeli advocates before reading Fair Isn’t Always Equal. So I was already “part of the choir.”


For those who aren’t, Wormeli’s book may not be so persuasive. (I think his Stenhouse Publishing videos are much more concrete and persuasive. They’re worth checking out here.)

Nevertheless, Wormeli makes a good case for providing students with grading and assessment that is fair, even if it isn’t always “equal”, i.e. identical to what other students are provided.

As one quick example, is it fair, Wormeli asks, that one student gets to use eyeglasses to read the material and assessment, while others do not? Of course it is. Is it equal? No. So why shouldn’t a dysgraphic student have a scribe to write down her response? That’s fair too — even if it isn’t equal for students who must write down their own responses.

I found the first two sections — “Differentiation and Mastery”; and “Assessment” — somewhat tedious to read. But hey, this book is ten years old, and much of what Wormeli wrote in 2007 is no longer new to many of us. In any case, the next section on “Grading” was more concrete and practical for my purposes.

But I still found myself wanting to shout, “Standards Based Grading! Just say it!” To my mind, Wormeli seemed to be nibbling around the edges without a full discussion of concepts and just a hint at SBG practices. Perhaps standards based grading wasn’t a popular concept in 2007? I’m not well-read enough to say. Still, for those with much different values and practices, Wormeli’s detailed discussion of these topics is certainly valuable, even if it isn’t a page turner. For those who are already in agreement, it’s confirmation and intellectual justification of what were perhaps just gut instincts.

The fourth and final section, “Implementation and the Big Picture,” is geared toward administrators and teachers interested in moving colleagues toward these practices. Also worth a quick read for anyone, and especially teachers in a hostile-to-change school environment. If you find yourself alone and battling the group mindset at your school, the honest and open stance Wormeli recommends is wise counsel.

I picked up this book largely because I’m teaching in a differentiated, inclusive classroom, with a full embrace of standards based grading for the first time in my long, fairly traditional career. Wormeli didn’t disappoint; I took away ideas and practices that I’ll be putting into use right away, and confirmed others that I had already adopted.  For all of these benefits, I highly recommend Fair Isn’t Always Equal for teachers and administrators, new and seasoned.


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