Grading on a Pandemic Curve

Published by Robin Jacobowitz on

The fundamentals of school have been relatively stable over time; students board a yellow bus or walk to school each day, sit through classes with peers and teachers, participate in any number of extracurricular activities, and take the bus or walk home. But school is looking pretty different these days; distance learning, virtual proms, meals delivered to students. And another important school institution—the way students’ work is graded—is also about to change, for now at least.

In devising grading policies, school districts are trying to account for the sudden shift to a new learning modality while recognizing that the traditional approach to grading may not be appropriate. Inherent in these decisions are questions of fairness and equity: What is fair, given this sudden shift to a new way of teaching and learning? What is equitable, given that students’ access to technology varies greatly, as do the home-life circumstances in which they are trying to engage their academic studies? Student performance in this new paradigm is going to be far harder to assess. 

Traditionally, we grade on some combination of student knowledge and effort—kids show up at school, attend classes, do the work at some level of academic proficiency, and receive an assessment of their performance. You get out what you put in, as the old saying goes.

But there are many students who can’t put anything in right now—either for lack of technology and connectivity, because of such family hardships as illness, lack of work, or having to parent siblings, etc. Our old system assumes at its base that students at the very least have the same access to the tools of learning—the classroom, the teachers, and the curriculum material. This access isn’t equal even in the best of times. But now this assumption truly does not hold.

Districts are grappling with how to integrate this reality into their grading systems. A common parlance in the education realm right now is “do no harm.” That is, grade in such a way that does not punish students for the hardships we are all enduring.

Our students, too, should be safeguarded: no child should fail because of this crisis. It’s the equitable thing to do.

Some districts have decided to grade student work as per usual. There may be some flexibility or acknowledgement of hardship in there, but these students will still receive a numeric or letter grade. Some districts are going to a pass/fail system (or credit/no credit). Some are proposing a hybrid — students will receive a numeric or letter grade, which they can convert to pass/fail, if they so choose. Also, many districts are granting wide latitude in allowing students to make up work past official due dates, even into the summer. 

Nevertheless, a grading policy that allows for failure (or no credit) may harm kids unintentionally. Are low grades given for missed work? Do students fail if they do not “show up” in a virtual class or turn in virtual assignments? How does a teacher know the reasons behind a student’s failure to engage or to complete work? What assumptions are being made that leads to this designation of “failure?” Even when a district allows students a choice between an actual grade or pass/fail, we fall into the same trap.

But there’s another way, a way that really “does no harm.” Some districts have proposed a system that allows for numeric or letter grading, but does not permit a failing grade. Others are using students’ average GPA up to the point of school closure as a baseline. Teachers could add to that baseline if a student is engaging in online learning and adding value to their overall performance. For example, a student performing at a C+ pre-quarantine could raise his or her final grade so that it falls within the B/B-range. 

The important factor with this approach is that points cannot be subtracted. 

Some districts have designated an “unable to assess” or “not tested” category for students who, for whatever reason, engage only sporadically with distance learning or who do not engage at all. This is an important category. First, it does not pass judgment. Language matters. There is no failure here, no loss of credit; just an inability to assess. This category adds no points to a student’s average, and it takes none away. With this system, a student cannot fail because of current circumstances. If a student was passing before this crisis, that student will pass for the year, regardless of whether or not they were able to engage in distance learning. Of course, a student who was failing prior to the crisis would still receive a failing grade. But no one would fail because of their inability to connect during a pandemic.

In these hard times we are creating safeguards for all kinds of things, whether that’s delaying rent, delaying payment of taxes, or freeing schools from accountability mechanisms. These safeguards should include our students. There will be a time for catch-up, for working with students who were unable to engage, for whatever reason, during the pandemic. This will require some innovative thinking and interventions for when classroom learning resumes. Times are tough right now. We—students included—deserve a pass. 


1 Comment

Ann Guenther · May 9, 2020 at 11:26 am

Just to say that I think some very good ideas have been put into practice
that may be of great help to those who need it. Many thanks to the folks
who have devoted time and energy and thought to this process. I think
it will send a great message to our next generation – seeing how our
adult mentors are working hard to construct a meaningful education for
their students despite the difficult obstacles that confront us all.
KUDOS to all who have been working so had on this. I think you’ve
provided some wonderful roll models, as well as some good projects.

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