COVID-19 has forced schools across the world to rethink overnight how to teach and grade their students. Yes, this is a herculean task; we might also dare to think of it as an opportunity to evaluate our practices with an equity lens. Doing so raises some urgent questions. Among them: How can we justly grade and report on student work in a world where remote learning exacerbates the racial and socio-economic inequities we were already struggling with? This question is not to be brushed aside until the crisis is over, for there is no equitable “normal” to return to. Given this inconvenient truth, we hope you will join us in reimagining what grading is for and how reporting might look. Our big idea is really simple: The focus should be on feedback and learning. A grade shouldn’t be a reward or punishment for attendance, behavior, or other forms of compliance.
Students of color, students who live in poverty, students with disabilities, and other marginalized populations have always faced unique impediments at school. Many schools built support structures designed to help students scale these barriers, but most of those supports are not available remotely. Barriers faced by marginalized students have only gotten taller in recent weeks. Some students lack access to the internet. Others lack access to required devices, such as tablets or computers. Others are struggling with a job loss in the family, and may lack access to basic necessities like heat or food. Still others may be responsible for teaching younger siblings in addition to their own learning.
At some point, we have to ask: How can we equitably grade these students alongside their more privileged peers? The old way of doing things just doesn’t apply any more. Perhaps it never did.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
In the best of times, assigning grades that are fair and accurate is challenging; during a global crisis and economic shutdown, it’s even harder. Teachers, many of whom are struggling to manage a variety of intense stressors of their own, are asked to assign grades to students they haven’t seen in weeks—knowing all the while how high the stakes are for the students they’re grading. Over the next four years, colleges will make admissions decisions based on those grades.
But here’s where the news starts to improve. While we don’t yet know how colleges will view or evaluate these grades, we do know that many colleges have moved to a pass/fail system for their own students in order to mitigate the inequities among students’ circumstances. Additionally, many state and federal accountability testing requirements have been waived and College Board assessments have been modified in response to the pandemic. This all points to an opening up of ideas—an opportunity to truly rethink how we’re grading our kids.
Our Recommendation for Grading and Reporting
Transforming the way your school or district grades and reports is a significant change that normally warrants a broad and inclusive community conversation. However, time is of the essence; if schools don’t act quickly, students stand to be permanently hurt by unfair grading practices. Consequently, GSP believes schools and districts must act quickly and make changes to their grading and reporting systems that will positively impact students today. Once this crisis passes, the learning gained by these decisions can be refined for next steps.
If we can’t continue grading as usual, what can educators do?
We recommend temporarily using some form of pass/incomplete grading to give every student the fairest chance to have their learning formally noted during this challenging time for all. This would enable students to continue to demonstrate their learning but not unfairly punish students who are unable to do so through no fault of their own.
Implementing such a system requires challenging conversations with the entire school community. The below guiding questions can help you as your school or district endeavors to create a system that works for you:
- Who does this decision privilege or benefit?
- Who does this decision harm or disadvantage?
- How are we hearing our community’s needs?
- What type of support will our students and families need in order to experience success?
- What type of support will teachers need in order to implement this in a way that supports all students?
- Does our system allow for appropriate adaptations?
- What considerations might be important regarding “consumers” of our grading system, such as colleges or future employers?
Learning Is What Matters in the End
The pandemic sweeping our nation will produce grief and challenge for all of us. Those who were subject to the inequities of our systems are subjected all the more during such a crisis. Let’s make sure that our high school grading systems don’t increase these disparities—and indeed, fight back against them.
For more guidance on assessment and grading during the pandemic, consider the following resources:
- Grading and Reporting for Educational Equity, a tool from the Great Schools Partnership.
- Grading During Coronavirus: What’s the Right Call?, an article by Stephen Sawchuk for EdWeek.
- A New Normal: Assessment and Distance Learning a one-hour panel discussion by What’s the Story? Vermont (facilitated by Champlain Valley Union High School coaches Stan Williams and Emily Rinkema; panelists: Tom Guskey, Ken O’Connor, Rick Wormeli, Lee Ann Jung).
- How Schools Are Rethinking Online Grading, an article by Matt Zalaznick for District Administration