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3 principles for grading students now

One of the most complicated issues facing teachers right now is how to assess and grade student work. As one Washington Post article noted this week, “There’s little consensus beyond the need to abandon the status quo.”

Even in “normal” times, assigning grades is complicated because they serve so many purposes: to communicate progress to students, to help parents to track how their children are doing, to document mastery of key content and skills, and to provide information for admissions and scholarship decisions. Indeed, one study found that a student’s high school grade point average was “a stronger predictor of first-year college GPA and second-year persistence” than either the end-of-year assessment or the SAT.

Said more simply: the grades we give students matter. A lot.

As we work to shift our grading policies to the realities of this pandemic, it’s critical to be guided by three key principles.

First, our grades must be fair. We should strive to avoid holding students accountable for things out of their control. Instead, student grades should reflect a student’s learning, not his or her individual circumstances. Given that not all students have equal access to wifi, to devices, and to distance learning support, a grading policy that is too rigid or inflexible will communicate more about a student’s opportunity to learn than about her actual mastery of core content.

Second, our grades must be honest. In spite of the inequities that exist, it’s important to communicate with parents and students about the actual process that has taken place. The San Francisco school board’s proposed policy of an “A for everyone” is, among other things, not an honest assessment of each child’s progress (fortunately, the Board voted unanimously against this idea in a meeting late last night). We know that some students are learning more and that some are struggling right now, for lots of reasons. And while our grading shouldn’t be overly punitive, it also must paint a clear and honest picture of student skills progress and content mastery.

Third, our grades must be individualized. As district leaders scramble to support teachers, too many are making the mistake of trying to develop a single grading policy that can be applied to all schools and classrooms, regardless of the needs and challenges of each individual community. In New York City, for instance, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a single grading policy for his 1 million-student district.

The challenge is that a child’s grade is the result of a combination of effort on homework, demonstrated mastery on tests, participation in class, and more. And decisions about how best to communicate that complicated mix of factors should be made as close to the student as possible. Top down, technocratic mandates made in large district offices, far removed from students and parents, will rarely work well across all schools.

All those who are grappling with grading–be they teachers, principals or superintendents–are balancing the crucial role of feedback and honesty with the very real challenges of equity. Yet all the inequities affecting students’ learning and grades make it more important–not less–that we provide students and parents as accurate and actionable a picture of how they are doing with school work as possible. This information is key for their teachers, and even for policymakers, to take well-aimed and comprehensive action to redress these learning losses that are beginning now, even before we return to “normal.”

If past is precedent, the challenges facing our students won’t get easier after this pandemic is over–and a lack of clarity about where they stand will only make it harder to chart a path that leads to long-term success.


*This post has been updated to reflect the April 28 San Francisco School Board vote.