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Composition Forum 50, Fall 2022

Review of Ellen Carillo’s The Hidden Inequities of Labor-Based Contract Grading

Charles Carroll

Carillo, Ellen. The Hidden Inequities in Labor-Based Contract Grading. Utah State University Press, 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a time fraught with emergency. Our physical campuses and local businesses have been shut down and re-opened only to be shut down again. Individuals, families, and communities have faced job loss, economic troubles, and death. Meanwhile, at many of our institutions grading systems were tweaked or eliminated entirely as a way for instructors to help students (and the instructors themselves) navigate the final months of the Spring 2020 semester a bit more equitably and with a bit less stress. As a result, the past two years have seen a return in conversations about the inequity of traditional grading systems. With its reputation for being a more equitable, inclusive, and antiracist form of assessment, some instructors have turned to labor-based contract grading as a viable alternative to traditional grading (Burrow; Lince; Theilen). However, Ellen Carillo advocates caution for those instructors considering labor-based contract grading in their courses. In The Hidden Inequities in Labor-Based Contract Grading, Carillo argues that labor-based contract grading in its current form poses inequitable obstacles to students with disabilities, students with mental health challenges, and students lacking access to socioeconomic capital. She suggests that by criticizing labor-based contract grading from the lenses of disability studies and intersectionality, instructors can imagine more equitable forms of assessment. Carillo’s book promises to be a useful tool for helping us assess the equity and inclusion of labor-based grading contracts in our own classrooms and for opening further avenues of research on the impact of this assessment methodology on students.

Before providing a more detailed overview of Carillo’s argument, I should pause here to offer a summary of contract grading and its labor-based variant. Grading contracts have been utilized in classrooms since at least the 1920s (Cowan 2). From its start, this assessment approach has been used to encourage self-directed learning, workload flexibility, and to make the work of providing student feedback more rewarding for instructors (Fowler 244; Guyles 368-369, 373-374). In 1968, Peter Elbow championed contract grading as a means of resisting the ambiguity of conventional grading systems, and by 1990 Jerry Farber was pointing to grading contracts as one way to challenge the racist evaluative hierarchies of the academy. Within the past few years there has been a perceptible “labor turn” in the history of grading contracts, with Asao Inoue’s Labor-Based Grading Contracts placing student labor at the center of his contract grading approach. In a labor-based approach, students maintain a log in which they record the amount of time they spend on writing assignments. A student who abides by the contract can earn up to a B; a student can earn an A by performing additional labor for the course. Inoue’s contract includes a “gimme clause,” in which a student can negotiate with an instructor for an extended deadline or other accommodations when unexpected circumstances arise. Inoue contends that this high level of transparency, together with the limitation of qualitative assessment, can lead toward a more equitable, antiracist mode of writing assessment. This assessment method has been both dynamic and controversial since its start more than a century ago. Carillo now hopes to join other scholar-teachers seeking to make assessment approaches more equitable and inclusive for our students by examining labor-based contract grading through the lens of disability studies.

While Inoue hopes that labor-based contract grading can replace conventional writing assessment based on the quality of a student’s writing, Carillo argues compellingly in her first chapter that labor-based contract grading merely replaces traditional White-supremacist qualitative assessment with an ableist quantitative assessment. Inoue defines labor as “the bodily work of reading, writing, and other activities associated with what it takes to engage in a writing course” (Inoue, Labor-Based Grading Contracts, 78). He acknowledges that assessment ecologies are Marxian political economies of exchange: student labor is exchanged for valuable objects, such as grades and feedback, but in most grading systems that labor is not explicitly commodified and is therefore devalued. Carillo takes issue with the assumption that labor, or at least a single method for quantifying labor, is a neutral measure. She argues that “these contracts enforce a White, middle-class, and most important for my purposes, ableist and neurotypical conception of labor” (Carillo 11).

Building on her critique of the neutralization of labor, Carillo uses her second chapter to highlight the additional labor required for students with physical disabilities to complete course assignments. Relying on recent disabilities studies research, she shows that students with disabilities must cope with the added burden of locating accessible spaces, downloading and utilizing assistive technologies, and working against inaccessible course materials, such as readings that are incompatible with assistive reading technology. This amounts to a significant amount of additional labor, particularly for students with additional marginalities (Maier et al. n.p.). Thus, students with disabilities are placed at a disadvantage when required to engage in significant amounts of additional labor compared to their able-bodied peers.

The third chapter continues to look at how normative student bodies are problematically centered in labor-based contract grading, this time considering students with mental health concerns (particularly anxiety and depression). She points out that the numbers of students who self-report anxiety and depression continues to increase, a trend which may be exacerbated by the physiological and psychological effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. While she acknowledges that Inoue designs a grading scheme with flexibility for students encountering mental health issues, she also suggests that such flexibility often requires disclosure to peers or the instructor, pointing to one study which suggests that many students may not have developed the knowledge or experience necessary to effectively articulate accommodation needs (Rocco and Collins). At this point in the book, she begins to introduce concrete suggestions for removing barriers to students with disabilities; suggesting, for example, that instructors engage in informed discussions about disability with their class.

While intersectionality is woven throughout the chapters described above, Carillo uses the fourth chapter to broaden the scope of labor-based contract grading to address additional inequities beyond ableism and racism. As she mentions, students of color (and especially Black students) who are disabled are particularly disadvantaged given the racial disparities in healthcare and the rampant racism in diagnostic criteria. Pointing to evidence that students of color in courses using labor-based grading contracts tend to labor more than their white peers and yet receive lower grades (Inoue Grading Contracts, Labor-Based Grading Contracts), she suggests that in their present form, labor-based grading contracts do not substantially reward additional labor, and additional labor is problematically couched in qualitative assessment (for example, students who are disadvantaged by racism, class, and other circumstances must devote additional time to producing work that meets specific minimum requirements).

In the fifth chapter, Carillo steps back to question whether labor-based contract grading is even effective in the first place. This chapter consists primarily of a review of recent literature on the effectiveness of this assessment approach, revealing mixed outcomes when it comes to the equity and learning efficacy of contract grading. Her review reveals that contract grading can increase students’ sense of agency (Villanueva), students’ confidence in their writing (Blackstock and Exton), and instructors’ enjoyment of reading student writing (Potts). However, this assessment methodology can also engender student suspicion due to deeply ingrained conditioning to traditional assessment methods (Spidell and Thelin). As I mention above, contract grading in its current form (and its labor-based variant) also appears to disadvantage African-American students in terms of time committed to specific assignments and grades awarded, according to studies by Inoue himself (Grading Contracts, Labor-Based Grading Contracts)—though I should mention here that labor was not a central criterion in the grading contract that Inoue used in his 2012 study. While pointing to the need for additional research on the impact of labor-based contract grading on students and their writing, Carillo highlights that none of these aforementioned studies consider assessment through a disability lens.

In the final chapter, Carillo presents some alternative grading systems, or at least some adjustments to labor-based contract grading, which she proposes to address many of the inequities described throughout the book in order to lead toward more equitable assessment. The first alternative is engagement-based grading contracts. This approach allows students to choose the ways that they engage with course material and produce knowledge; options may include, for example, collaborative note-taking, oral presentations, discussion board posts, writing a traditional paper, or submitting a video recording. She claims that by offering a menu of engagement options, this approach avoids relying on a single standard of labor based on able-bodied assumptions about students. The next approach is to move from grading contracts formed between instructor and class toward contracts between instructors and individual students. These individualized contracts would ideally make space for students to articulate the means and standards by which they are assessed.

Carillo’s use of a disabilities lens to examine the various inequities of labor-based contract grading is an invaluable addition to the ongoing conversation about contract grading. Carillo’s critiques are well-articulated, provocative, and worthy of consideration, yet more research and active listening on the part of instructors needs to be done for us to fully understand the impact of labor-based contract grading on our students. Many of the critiques that Carillo uses throughout the book are compelling in theory but call for hitherto nonexistent empirical studies to support her reservations and pedagogical suggestions. The most salient omission, and one which she acknowledges (Carillo 25), is the lack of student voices in her study, particularly students with disabilities. We must listen actively to our students to learn how our assessment practices impact their intellectual growth, metacognitive development, and sense of self. Without this important addition to the conversation, we risk paternalizing students and reinforcing instructional hierarchies in the ways that both Carillo and Inoue seek to avoid.

I hope my critiques are understood as suggestions for moving this conversation forward rather than critiques of the book, which provides teacher-scholars an excellent framework for an ongoing discussion. Indeed, this is a bold and important book, and one which I hope will shape conversations about the advantages and disadvantages of labor-based contract grading for years to come.

Works Cited

Blackstock, Alan, and Virginia Norris Exton. ‘Space to Grow’: Grading Contracts for Basic Writers. Teaching English in the Two-Year College, vol. 41, no. 3, 2014, pp. 278-293.

Burrow, Lauren. Contract Grading: A More Equitable COVID-19 Grading Practice Worth Keeping. AJE Forum, 18 Oct. 2021, Accessed 27 July 2022.

Cowan, Michelle. A Legacy of Grading Contracts for Composition. Journal of Writing Assessment, vol. 13, no. 2, 2020.

Elbow, Peter. A Method for Teaching Writing. College English, vol. 30, no. 2, 1968, pp. 115-125.

Farber, Jerry. Learning How to Teach: A Progress Report. College English, vol. 52, no. 2, 1990, pp. 135-141.

Fowler, Louise H. Life-Savers in Composition. The English Journal, vol. 17, no. 3, 1928, pp. 244-246.

Guyles, Calla A. The Contract Method in Junior High School Latin. The Classical Journal, vol. 26, no. 5, 1931, pp. 364-376.

Inoue, Asao B. Grading Contracts: Assessing their Effectiveness on Different Racial Formations. Race and Writing Assessment, edited by Asao B. Inoue and Mya Poe. Peter Lang, 2012, pp. 78-93.

---. Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. University Press of Colorado, 2019.

Lince, Anthony. Labor-Based Grading Contracts and the Opportunity for Failure. Teachers Going Gradeless, 24 Jan. 2021, Accessed 27 July 2022.

Maier, Sophia, et al. GET THE FRAC IN! Or, The Fractal Many-festo: A (Trans)(Crip)t. Peitho, vol. 22, no. 4, 2020, n.p.

Potts, Glenda. A Simple Alternative to Grading. Inquiry, vol. 15, no. 1, 2010, pp. 29-42.

Rocco, Tonette S., and Joshua C. Collins. An Initial Model for Accommodation Communication between Students with Disabilities and Faculty. Negotiating Disability: Disclosure and Higher Education, edited by Stephanie L. Kerschbaum, et al. U of Michigan P, 2017, pp. 327-344.

Thielen, Brita M. My First Experiment with Labor-Based Contract Grading. 26 May 2020, Accessed 27 July 2022.

Spidell, Cathy and William H. Thelin. Not Ready to Let Go: A Study of Resistance to Grading Contracts. Composition Studies, vol. 34, no. 1, 2006, pp. 35-68.

Villanueva, Nayelee Uzan. Impact of a Grade Contract Model in a Basic Writing Composition Course: A Qualitative Multiple Case Study. 2014. U of Nevada, Las Vegas, PhD dissertation.

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