Because the grades students receive are used for many high-stakes decisions—course placement, graduation, scholarships, college admission, and more—policymakers and district leaders need guidance on whether, and how, to grade work during the COVID-19 crisis.
In working with scores of schools and districts since 2013, I base my recommendations for grading for the 2019-20 spring term on three key principles:
- Stress related to COVID-19 will negatively impact student academic performance. Everyone is affected by the stress of the pandemic, and this stress is expected to grow as the distancing restrictions continue. Meanwhile, the economic impact of this crisis is having deep consequences and disproportionately affects students from lower income families, which are more vulnerable to economic downturns and more likely to experience food and housing insecurity. The fact that grades themselves are a significant source of stress to students will only exacerbate the pressure students experience. Finally, stress and anxiety hamper cognition, particularly with higher-demand tasks involved in learning.2 Student performance on quizzes, tests, or other assessments will assuredly be compromised and will not accurately reflect their learning, and the problem will be more acute for lower-income students and those with special needs.
- Student academic performance during school closures is more likely to reflect racial economic, and resource differences. Schools have entirely shifted to remote instruction, and never in the history of our country has a student’s learning been so dependent on technological access and home resources—a situation that has exposed glaring inequities.3 For example:
- Millions of students lack computers or internet access in their homes;
- Families with several school-age children may require multiple computers and higher bandwidth;
- As parents are being asked to assume more responsibility to support and even teach their children, those with more education or more resources can provide more academic supports for their children than other parents; and
- Parents who provide “essential” services—including hourly employees in public transit, sanitation, grocery stores, and pharmacies—are less available to their children than other parents.
While schools strive to provide sufficient supports to students to level the playing field, most schools are unable to do that as effectively in this new context. The result is that, at this moment, students’ academic performance will reflect their home environments more than ever.
- Teachers are being asked to provide high-quality instruction remotely, for which most are inadequately prepared. Even among our most dedicated teachers, most have received little, if any, preparation to provide remote or distance learning instruction. Effective online learning requires carefully tailored instructional design and planning, using a specialized model for design and development.4 It is more than using online learning applications, it’s not simply having students progress through their school class schedule in virtual classes all day long, and it’s not just posting worksheets and readings on a website. Yet these rudimentary translations of in-class teaching (which, for some teachers, pose a very steep learning curve) may be the best that most teachers can do, given that they themselves are also likely grappling with the significant stress and anxiety of physical distancing and the health and safety of their families. In addition, with students doing all of their work outside the classroom, it is impossible for a teacher to ensure that any work submitted is entirely the student’s; it could be the performance of an older sibling, a parent, or even a peer.
Because of these dynamics that make the reporting of student knowledge and understanding inevitably inaccurate and inequitable, no grades should be awarded for student performance as of the date schools were closed due to the coronavirus. This is especially important for students in kindergarten through 9th grade, during which grades have far less consequence.
- Use Only Pass/Incomplete Grades. If grades do need to be awarded—such as at the high school and postsecondary levels—the only grades for the second semester of the school year should be either “Pass” or “Incomplete” instead of the traditional 0-100 percentages and A-F letter grades. Schools use percentages and letter grades primarily to distinguish among students and suggest precise distinctions of course content knowledge, but this specificity is impossible when such significant doubts exist about the integrity or fairness of student performance data.
Because letter and percentage grades also can add stress and anxiety to students, Pass/Incomplete grades give students some relief during this extremely stressful time. Students should receive a “Pass” for second semester if, at the time their school was closed due to the coronavirus, they were meeting minimum standards in a course. Students not meeting minimum standards in the course up to that point should have the opportunity to fulfill the requirements remotely and receive a “Pass” for the course. If students are unable to meet the requirements for whatever reason, they should receive an “Incomplete” for the course and, when schools reopen, be provided sufficient opportunity to fulfill requirements. Yearlong courses in which semester grades are normally combined should be bifurcated into two separate reports—a letter grade for first semester and a Pass/Incomplete for second semester.
- If Grades Are Necessary, Make Them Temporary. If the school or district context requires that an A-F letter grade must be assigned, schools should explicitly frame the grade as a temporary description of what a student has demonstrated based on incomplete information. The district should provide opportunities, once schools reopen, for a student to learn the course content and improve the grade assigned during the school closure period.
- Don’t Leave the Choice of Grading to the Students. Although some districts have attempted to please all parties by allowing students to decide whether a course should be Pass/No Pass or graded A-F actually perpetuates inequity: it gives students with access to technology and resources the advantage of being able to earn the letter grade, while the less-resourced student cannot realistically exercise that choice. And, for reasons stated above, “Incomplete” is preferred to “No Pass”; “No Pass” connotes a final evaluation of a student’s performance, which during school closures is based on flawed information and disproportionately disadvantages low-income and other less resourced students. “Pass/Incomplete” is a more accurate grade and allows all students, regardless of circumstances, to complete course requirement when they have this opportunity.
- Have Students Sign an Integrity Agreement. Districts and schools should ask students to sign a “remote academic integrity agreement” in which they promise that all work submitted was completed without any additional assistance, unless specified by the teacher. This agreement helps the school or district reaffirm its expectations for students and increases students’ investment in their learning. It also builds teachers’ confidence that the work students submit is their own. Of particular importance during this crisis is that educators consider and use these agreements not as “gotcha” traps to disqualify student work but rather as a tool to build responsibility and trusting relationships.
- Continue Providing Feedback on Performance. Teachers should continue to give detailed feedback to students on their performance to support learning. Teacher feedback could be communicated through online meetings or web-based applications, and will give students valuable insight into their understanding, guidance on how to improve, and motivation to learn and grow. Research supports the impact of non-graded feedback to focus students on learning rather than performance,5 and when the psychological and intellectual “load” on students and their families is so significant, it is important that schools lean on the side of support and learning rather than competition and high-stakes performance.
Student Needs, Not Grades, Come First
Once a grading policy is determined, districts and schools should issue a statement to families that explains the policy and how it aligns with their overarching beliefs about learning, equity, and children. Several policymakers and superintendents are already implementing these policies. Philadelphia, for example, announced that because some children are not able to access technology or complete assignments, teachers cannot require or evaluate any remote work. Both Virginia and Kansas schools, which are physically closed for the remainder of the school year, have also stated that student work should not be graded during this time. If parents and others are concerned about whether or not awarding traditional grades will make their children less competitive or eligible for opportunities (e.g., scholarships and college admission), institutions that make decisions based on grades—such as colleges, the NCAA, and others—are making adjustments and allowances because of the global upheaval caused by COVID-19.
The only way schools can properly recognize the stress and anxiety that the coronavirus has and will have our communities is to not evaluate and assign grades for remote learning during the 2019-20 school year, and possibly next. In this way, educators can continue to affirm that all grades must be accurate, that they must be equitable and, most of all, that they support learning.
1 “[D]omestic violence increases whenever stress increases, particularly financial. We’re going to see increased rates of child abuse, physical and also neglect as well,” predicted Victor Carrion, director of the Stanford Early Life Stress and Pediatric Anxiety Program. Hoge, P., 2020. Coping With Stress Of Coronavirus Crisis A Challenge For California’s Students. [online] EdSource.
2 Vogel, S. (2020). Stress affects the neural ensemble for integrating new information and prior knowledge. PubMed – NCBI. [Online]. Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.
3 Sonali, K., (2020). Coronavirus-caused LAUSD school shutdown worsens inequities as many students go AWOL. [online] Los Angeles Times. [Accessed 3 April 2020]; Reilly, K., (2020). The achievement gap is ‘more glaring than ever’ for students dealing with school closures. [Online] Time.
4 Hodges, C., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T. & Bond, A. (2020). The difference between emergency remote teaching and online learning. [Online] Educause Review.
5 Butler, R. & Mordecai, N. (1986). Effects of no feedback, task-related comments, and grades on intrinsic motivation and performance. Journal of Educational Psychology (78)3: 210.
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