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Challenging Education’s Unhealthy Addiction to Assessment 

Review of The Hidden Inequities in Labor-Based Contract Grading (2021). By Ellen C. Carillo

Reviewed by Cat Mahaffey

Publication Details

 OLOR Series:  OLOR Reviews
 Author(s):  Cat Mahaffey
 Original Publication Date:  14 March 2023


Resource Contents

Review of The Hidden Inequities in Labor-Based Contract Grading  

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed serious gaps in teaching approaches and practices, including grading schemas that exacerbated inequities across socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic lines. As instructors from K-12 to higher ed found themselves faced with challenges of student mental health, engagement, and access, flexibility became the mantra. While all instructors struggled to meet students’ needs, scholars in online literacy were perhaps better equipped because of their continued focus on ongoing training and attention to accessibility and equity. And this is where Ellen Carillo’s (2021) The Hidden Inequities in Labor-Based Contract Grading emerges as an informative text. Dialoging directly with other researchers and teachers, Carillo, a prominent scholar on teaching and literacy, challenges some of the ideas about using contract grading as the solution to all that ails education’s unhealthy addiction to assessment.

Carillo begins with a brief literature review of contract grading and then shifts focus toward teasing out how contract grading reinforces normative assumptions of labor. Drawing upon and responding to one of the field’s staunchest proponents of grading contracts, Asao Inoue, Carillo asks readers to dig a bit deeper into the phenomenon of contract grading, asserting that only some students benefit from this increasingly popular approach to assessment. At the heart of the issue is the notion of labor, particularly labor that is equated with time spent on a task, since, as Carillo points out, “time is less available to students in certain socioeconomic classes” and “time and labor function differently for students with disabilities” (p. 17).

Chapters 2, 3, and 4 break down this normative standard of labor. First, Carillo expresses concern that contracts like the ones promoted by Inoue place “able-bodied and neurotypical student[s] at the center” (p. 21), negating the extra labors that disabled and neurodivergent students must employ to navigate the many barriers present in the current ableist systems of education. Furthermore, student mental health was already declining before the pandemic, and since Carillo published her monograph in 2021 while the pandemic was still underway, even she couldn’t have known the long-lasting and sustained declines in student mental health would be. In any case, she wisely devotes a whole chapter to this issue, pointing out that expectations of negotiating for grades potentially marginalizes students with accommodations further than the system already does. And when considering racial disparities, Carillo argues that labor-based contract grading, a system that purports to be a solution for supporting non-White students, may in fact further disenfranchise students of color, “caus[ing] these students to labor more without awarding them the benefit of higher grades” (p. 40).

Carillo devotes the last two chapters to analysis of the research through a disability lens and to proposing alternatives to labor-based contract grading. The first alternative is engagement-based grading contracts wherein students make choices about how to engage with course materials, concepts, and assignments, tapping into each student’s unique way of creating knowledge. The second alternative draws upon linguistic justice research, essentially shifting the contract away from teacher-class and toward teacher-individual student. Carillo acknowledges the very real workload issues to this approach, but the tradeoff might be fair since “students would gain the opportunity to co-create an assessment practice that values what they value” (p. 63). Overall, Carillo’s book encourages instructors to consider more inclusive grading practices that focus on process over outcome, something the field of Writing Studies continues to grapple with.

The Hidden Inequities in Labor-Based Contract Grading.  

Ellen C. Carillo. 2021. Utah State University Press. [Paperback, $11.95; Ebook, $9.95]

About the Reviewer

Cat Mahaffey, Ph. D., Professor in Writing, Rhetoric & Digital Studies at the UNC Charlotte, has taught online since 2015. Her research interests include online literacy, privacy, and accessibility.

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