Why Grading Policies For Equity Matter More Than Ever

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Every other day, a McKinney-Vento program coordinator with San Leandro Unified School District travels to the marina on the district’s eastern boundary. There, she drops off meals, hygiene kits and school supplies to families who are sheltering in their cars. She also provides information such as where to access public WiFi so students can keep up with classes.

Reaching homeless students is just one of the many challenges educators are tackling during COVID-19 school closures. While some students are learning in homes with abundant resources and parental support, others are sharing devices or bandwidth, taking care of siblings, or fitting school work around jobs. Such varied learning conditions raise a question: how can schools grade fairly during a pandemic?

For some educators, the answer is simple: they can’t. “If we’re grading right now, we’re grading privilege,” said school equity consultant Sheldon L. Eakins during a recent professional development session. In an interview with MindShift, Eakins gave an example using his own family. In the past month, his son, who is in elementary school, has been assigned multiple worksheets per day. “I have a home office with ink, paper, and I’m an educator to help him one-on-one,” Eakins said, but many other kids in rural Idaho don’t have those advantages.

Joe Feldman, an educator who has led schools across the country in transforming their grading practices, said that resource disparities are one of several reasons that grades cannot accurately represent student learning right now. Other factors include the enormous stress families are experiencing, which can impede cognition and lower student performance, and the reality that teachers have rapidly shifted to online instruction with little training. At San Leandro Unified, leaders took all of those factors into consideration when devising a plan for grading during COVID-19. According to Assistant Superintendent Sonal Patel, her team moved forward with the goal of continuing to make learning meaningful while emphasizing equity. Their solutions included switching to a pass/incomplete system at secondary schools and focusing on narrative feedback at elementary schools.

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Switching to Pass/Incomplete

For the fourth quarter, San Leandro’s secondary students will receive a “pass” or “incomplete” instead of a letter grade. In his guidance for grading during COVID-19 closures, Feldman recommended this model for schools that cannot drop grades entirely. It differs from the more familiar pass/fail model available in some colleges, because it does not punish students who cannot keep up during school closures. At San Leandro, students who receive an incomplete can finish their work during the summer or within six weeks of schools reopening. After that, the mark would become a “no pass.”

Patel noted that some districts have decided to let third quarter grades stand in for the final grade, but she said that’s a disservice to students who were not passing at the time that school buildings closed. In contrast, San Leandro will convert third quarter scores to a pass/no pass to be combined with the fourth quarter pass/incomplete for the overall semester grades of high schoolers. This approach gives students the opportunity to raise their grade either during distance learning or within six weeks of schools reopening.

Feldman said that educators may be tempted to add a “pass+” option to recognize high-achievers, but he advised against it, saying that “the only students who can take advantage of that are the ones who have supports." And Eakins noted that asking students to choose between a letter grade or a pass/incomplete option similarly replicates disadvantage.

Multiple Forms of Feedback

At San Leandro’s elementary schools, instead of grades, teachers will issue third trimester report cards with only narrative comments. They also will hold phone or video conferences with parents to discuss how a student is doing, next steps for the summer and what support might be needed in the fall. At all grade levels, high-quality feedback makes a difference in student learning. Continuing to give that feedback is one of Feldman’s recommendations for grading during COVID-19. Focusing on that, rather than on the pressure that is often associated with grades, he said, sends the message that teachers care about what’s happening in students’ lives.

Patel said that figuring out how to maintain the loop of teacher feedback and student growth during distance learning is as important as deciding whether to assign letter grades. She noted that while educators already knew that relationships matter, “Right now it’s just an absolute gatekeeper. If kids don’t want to open up that Chromebook to get in a Zoom with us … they can completely shut down.” San Leandro’s emergency distance learning plan asks teachers to check in with students twice per week. 

An opportunity to rethink grading

For the past three years, San Leandro’s administrators and teachers have worked with Feldman to adopt equitable grading practices. That work put them in a good position to think critically about grading during a pandemic. For others, coronavirus is shining a new spotlight on disparities that affect student outcomes. Eakins and Feldman hope that spotlight will stay on when schools reopen. Many districts have distributed laptops and wireless hot spots to families without Internet, for instance. Will those supports continue to be available after coronavirus? “We could easily go back to business as usual, ” Eakins said. “This is a time for us to create a new normal and plan ahead. We can really start challenging the inequities that have been around pre-COVID-19 and move forward.”

Feldman hopes that this crisis will prompt educators to reflect on the purpose of grades. Behavioral metrics, such as homework completion and class participation — what he referred to as “all that bean counting that teachers normally spend a lot of time on” — do not assess what students actually know, he said. They also make grades susceptible to implicit bias. With some of those metrics gone during distance learning, will teachers consider eliminating them altogether?

From his research all over the country, Feldman knows that even talking about changing grading practices can be contentious. But Patel, whose district has done it, considered the process worthwhile. “That work wasn’t just about being intellectually interested in grading,” she said. “It came from a lived teacher and family experience of wanting to make sure that grades are authentic.”

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Now, amid coronavirus, that work continues.