As many schools and school districts make the transition and settle into online learning for possibly the rest of the academic year, the question of grading during the pandemic is actively debated at the local and state levels. Twenty-seven states and three territories have already ordered complete school closings, solidifying the online fate of 25.2 million public school students and their teachers. Others remain closed through April and into May, leaving the possibility of reopening schools in late May or June.

To Grade or Not to Grade 

However, for the time being, the majority of schools rely on distance learning at home. Teachers and students alike face vastly different living situations, where technology and internet access may be limited. Family obligations and physical safety concerns are also part of the education equation. No two student or teacher backgrounds are the same.

Keeping all these factors in mind, teachers and administrators are starting to debate if the way schools grade students should change too. How are they supposed to assign grades? Do students need grades in order to learn to their fullest potential? What grading system will benefit students the most?

The Origin of Grades

Before we dive into the pros and cons of each evaluation system, let’s take a moment to look at the history of grades. According to researchers Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner, grades are actually a fairly recent phenomenon, dating only to around the 1940s. The primary reason grades did begin to develop in the 19th and 20th centuries was to ease communication between institutions. Grading and scoring student work are currently used as a way to assess and communicate readiness, but unfortunately it is becoming more and more common for students to be obsessed and stressed over their grades. This can help students be motivated to perform better, but it also contributes to students focusing on good grades rather than the actual learning experience.

Grading Types: Pros and Cons

The most popular types of grading used across the U.S. in primary schools, secondary schools, and higher education are letter grades, pass/fail, and no grades. Each system comes with its own advantages and disadvantages when applied to online schooling during the pandemic.

LETTER GRADES

Pros

Keeping some sense of normalcy during this unprecedented time is possible through continuing to give out letter grades. The American grading system typically uses an A-F breakdown with a related numerical score scale. To switch from the usual grading system is another change that both students and teachers have to adapt to quickly. Students thrive on clear expectations and stability in the classroom, especially while distance learning.

By keeping letter grades, students can also appropriately calculate and track their GPA, improving it as needed. High school juniors and seniors may need to meet a certain GPA to be considered competitive for certain colleges and universities. Without letter grades, their GPAs may stay the same for too long until it’s too late to pull them up. Letter grades ensure a certain level of transparency in the learning progress.

Cons 

With online learning, teacher access is definitely more limited. Students can’t stay after school to get in-person help anymore. Instead, they must resort to short video chats and emails. There are also fewer ways to deliver content creatively and thoroughly, particularly for classes requiring hands-on activities like scientific labs. Students will be less motivated to keep up letter grades with limited meaningful interactions with their teachers.

Consistently maintaining high letter grades can also be very difficult if grading expectations are kept the same. Students may not learn the material as well with limited teacher and technology access. It also puts teachers in the position of giving out lower grades than their students usually score based on their performances in unequal circumstances. As a result, students could be less motivated to put in the same amount of effort if their grades suffer regardless.

PASS/FAIL

Pros

When students attend school in person, they have equal access to their teachers and technology. They can get away from situations that may impact their learning, such as family issues or neighborhood violence. When they’re expected to learn from home, the pass/fail grading system accounts for the unexpected impacts on their education. Students, especially those with disabilities, have more wiggle room to learn the material at their own pace and to the fullest extent they can given the circumstances.

At the same time, teachers can be more lenient with students and are given more leniency with their own challenges. They have the option to give out fairer grades when they’re dealing with family issues or have limited range to teach material. Teachers don’t have to feel guilty setting unrealistic expectations, especially if they know their students face inordinate challenges at home. However, It does ensure students must still learn and be somewhat present.

Cons

While students have more flexibility, it’s possible they won’t be motivated to learn the class material to the fullest degree. If a teacher assigns a series of textbook math problems for example, students might only complete some problems knowing they’d still “pass” the assignment. Some students learn best when faced with high expectations and complete work more thoroughly when their grades are at stake. The consequences of failing are less likely for students who normally do well academically with pass/fail grading.

With the potential lack of motivation, students most likely won’t be getting the academic enrichment needed to succeed in next year’s classes or be prepared for standardized tests and college applications. Many classes build upon one another, such as Algebra I and Algebra II. If students don’t properly learn the base concepts in the first class, how can they succeed at learning more advanced concepts in the second class? When schools return to letter grades or numerical scores, how will colleges look at the low scores on student transcripts?

NO GRADES 

Pros

Refraining from grading any work students do in distance learning allows for the most flexibility and takes away any pressure. Students with disabilities, family issues and/or limited technology/internet access don’t have to worry about completing assignments on time or keeping up grades on top of other more pressing situations. It ensures the most equity among schools and school districts with a wide range of student and teacher needs.

Many teachers face a steep learning curve with figuring out new and creative ways to teach the class material with the available technological tools. Without the additional workload of giving out grades, teachers can put their time and energy into how to best cater to their students’ unique needs. Grading and giving sufficient feedback can be extremely time-consuming, which would take away from overcoming the technological learning curve.

Cons 

Without any academic repercussions for not doing assigned work, there will be a definite lack of motivation from many students. If a student hates learning physics, chances are all physics assignments will be ignored. It’s feasible that students may not complete any assignments at all, even those for classes they absolutely love, without incentive to do work. For middle and high school students, watching TV or playing video games is probably more enticing than doing homework without feedback and grades.

The potential lack of motivation will also be frustrating for teachers creating content as best as they can. They may feel any lessons they create or assignments given are wasted time for both themselves and their students if no effort is put forth. Teachers want to see their students learning for the next weeks to months, but the no grading policy will definitely make it hard to track student progress.

Grading Policies Across the Country

While many school districts are still trying to figure out a permanent system for assigning student grades through distance learning, others have already established unique policies with guidance from their state’s Board of Education or completely on their own.

For example, in North Carolina public schools have been given guidelines for giving out grades to students. All high school seniors will graduate on time, no matter if their standing grades are currently considered passing or not. Non-passing seniors will be assisted in improving their grades. However, for all other students in any classroom to receive grades, they must all have equal access to the class materials and have the ability to complete assignments. For students in grades 6-11 who must take on extra work or care for family members, they are exempted from being graded.

Similarly, Tennessee’s State Board of Education mandated that all public high schools cannot give students grades lower than what they earned in classes as of March 20. Williamson County School District decided to apply to this mandate to all students in grades 2-12. No student will receive a final letter grade lower than what was achieved cumulatively through March 6.

Green Bay Area School District, on the other hand, has chosen a hybrid model using a “Do No Harm” philosophy. It enables parents and students to choose between receiving Pass/No Grade-COVID-19 Closure indication or letter grades as usual. The Pass/No Grade option will not be calculated into high school students’ calculated GPAs. For status-related honors like Honor Roll or tie-breaking in determining scholarships, only letter grades are accepted.

What’s the right approach? 

Just like conducting any scientific experiment, trial and error will be inevitable in the process of determining the most effective way to assign grades to students. The U.S. education system has never experienced a transition this large-scale, so finding the perfect solution even at the district level is very unlikely. Each student and teacher has different learning needs and academic goals.

The best grading practices will encourage honesty and respectful communication among teachers, students, and administrators. Above all else, though, providing highly effective feedback will be even more valuable to students during this pandemic no matter what grades they receive. Research suggests that one of the best ways to improve student success is to provide more descriptive feedback rather than more numerical evaluations.

Feedback is how we learn. Through ongoing cycles of practice and feedback, we learn new skills throughout our lives. For students, effective feedback is equivalent to 8 additional months of learning per school year. With widespread school closures and limited time-capacity for teachers, feedback is one of the most powerful tools to use right now to make sure students keep learning and growing.

Marco Learning’s support can help you with this important endeavor; we provide students with actionable, specific, goal-oriented feedback that keeps them focused on learning and encourages them to grow as intellectuals.

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