Ellen C. Carillo’s The Hidden Inequities in Labor-Based Contract Grading

Reviewed by Mikenna Sims, University of California, Davis

Carillo, E. C. (2021). The hidden inequities in labor-based contract grading. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Ellen C. Carillo’s (2021) The Hidden Inequities in Labor-Based Contract Grading offers a critique of the assessment model put forth by Asao B. Inoue (2019) in Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. Carillo opens her introduction by naming Inoue an “invaluable leader in writing studies,” particularly as the field contends with inequitable grading practices (4). Building on the work of Inoue and others, Carillo offers a disabilities studies lens through which she explores the implications of labor-based contract grading among disabled and neurodivergent students, departing from the raciolinguistic lens that has informed much of the existing work on contract grading. Carillo concludes her introduction with a brief history of contract grading situated in Cowan’s (2020) recent review of the literature.

Carillo opens Chapter 1 by outlining a set of assumptions that underscores labor-based contract grading. Specifically, Carillo posits that labor-based contract grading inaccurately assumes that labor is a neutral measure, and that contracts that attempt to quantify student labor reinforce White, middle-class, normative, ableist, and neurotypical conceptions of labor. That is, time to labor is less available to students in certain socioeconomic classes, and the concepts of time and labor function differently for students with disabilities and who are neurodivergent. Carillo additionally calls attention to the coupling of students’ willingness to labor with their ability to labor, which is a central component of Inoue’s (2019) labor-based contract grading model. Carillo further critiques the model’s assumption in Chapter 2 and considers that while students may be willing to engage in the laboring processes of a writing course, their time and ability to do so may vary considerably. She closes the chapter by arguing that labor-based contract grading merely substitutes one standard of assessment for another, and that the normative, laboring body remains at the center of labor-based grading contracts.

In Chapter 3, Carillo highlights students’ significant and growing experiences with anxiety and depression, exacerbated in part by the COVID-19 pandemic. Carillo contends that labor-based contract grading creates a standard of labor that excludes students experiencing heightened states of anxiety and depression and goes on to problematize the contract negotiation process Inoue (2019) proposes as a way for instructors to invite students to define important terms and labor expectations of a course contract. These negotiation processes, Carillo argues, place the responsibility of disclosing and requesting accommodations on disabled and neurodivergent students, and are reactive instead of proactive.

Students’ intersectional identities are central in Chapter 4, throughout which Carillo considers the ways in which multiply-marginalized students are disadvantaged in labor-based assessment ecologies. Further, she argues that labor-based grading contracts can easily revert to instruments that measure the quality of student writing, and that asking students to put more labor into their coursework is codified language that implies students are producing work that is of subpar quality. Carillo praises Kryger & Zimmerman (2020) for their intentionally intersectional approach to labor-based contract grading. She particularly values their attention to denaturalizing White supremacy, nonnormative conceptions of time and effort, as well as their emphasis on flexibility in assessment. Carillo concludes this chapter by highlighting the importance of conversations such as those put forth by Kryger & Zimmerman to “recognize and include the widest possible range of modes of learning and being” (42).

Throughout Chapter 5, Carillo considers the effectiveness of grading contracts across local assessment ecologies. After providing a brief overview of several recent studies on contract grading, she turns her attention to Inoue’s (2012) “Grading contracts: Assessing their effectiveness on different racial formations,” and Inoue’s (2019) Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. Carillo, upon reexamining the data Inoue provides in these two texts, reasons that the students of color in Inoue’s classes seem to be doing more labor than their White counterparts but are not rewarded for it, suggesting that the philosophy that informs labor-based contract grading may be overestimating the equalizing power of labor and underestimating the importance of intersectionality. Carillo, echoing Cowan (2020), concludes Chapter 5 by issuing a call for large-scale studies that examine the effectiveness of labor-based grading contracts.

Carillo concludes Hidden Inequities by rearticulating that labor-based grading contracts are designed to best serve idealized, able-bodied, and neurotypical students. Carillo proposes engagement-based grading contracts as an alternative method of assessment in which students are offered a broad range of ways to demonstrate engagement in the course. She reasons that engagement-based grading contracts afford students the flexibility and agency of deciding which methods of engagement are most suitable to them at a given time, which works to bridge the gap between student willingness and ability. Carillo additionally suggests that using a translingual lens to assess student writing, and creating individualized student contracts, may better attend to multiply-marginalized and linguistically diverse students. She ends by reminding writing studies scholars that constructing equitable, student-centered assessment methods is a process, and not solely an outcome to be achieved.


Cowan, M. (2020). A legacy of grading contracts for composition. Journal of Writing Assessment, 13(2). Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/0j28w67h.

Inoue, A. B. (2012). Grading contracts: Assessing their effectiveness on different racial formations. In A.B. Inoue & M. Poe (Eds.), Race and writing assessment (pp. 79-94). New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.

Inoue, A. B. (2019). Labor-based grading contracts: Building equity and inclusion in the compassionate writing classroom. Fort Collins, CO: WAC Clearinghouse. Retrieved from https://wac.colostate.edu/books/perspectives/labor/.

Kryger, K., & Zimmerman, G.X. (2020). Neurodivergence and intersectionality in labor-based grading contracts. Journal of Writing Assessment, 13(2). Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/4v65z263.