Perspectives: How should Iowa schools grade during a pandemic?

By Matt Townsley, Ed.D.

Matt Townsley is an assistant professor in educational leadership  in the Department of Educational Psychology, Foundations and Leadership Studies at the College of Education.  

Matt TownsleyIn Spring 2020, the New York Times and Washington Post, among other newspapers, published stories about schools adapting their grading policies in lieu of a sudden shift to emergency remote learning.  More close to home, the Quad City Times ran a similar story describing Bettendorf school board deliberations around third quarter grades. In response to these unprecedented times, schools utilized “do no harm” grading methods, such as freezing the previous grades, replacing letter grades with pass-fail and providing students’ choice among the aforementioned methods. Colleges and universities were in a similar position during the spring and continue to adapt this fall, according to one Harvard administrator who said, “This is not a normal semester.”

Fast forward to the current academic year and Iowa K-12 schools are currently implementing a variety of instructional delivery models, providing 100 percent remote options for families and quickly moving students in and out of quarantine-induced learning environments. Any sense of “normalcy” beyond our current pandemic-era of learning appears to be months or perhaps years away. For over 100 years, researchers and practitioners have documented educators' use of grades and concluded that when a “hodgepodge” of factors go into determining a letter grade, the output, frequently in the form of a letter grade, does not adequately communicate what a student has actually learned or is able to do. Rather than serving multiple functions (i.e., points for participation, progress and proficiency), grades ought to serve a single purpose: communicating students’ current levels of learning.  In this column, I offer three grading principles focused on communicating learning that school leaders should consider during pandemic-era learning.

Base grades on learning goals vs. activities

First, letter grades should be based upon the level at which students have learned a prioritized set of course objectives or standards. Too often in the past, teachers have based grades upon activities rather than learning goals. 

For example, a culminating English assessment may be reported as “Unit 5 Test” in the grade book, which limits demonstration of learning to a single assessment medium. In hybrid or remote learning environments, secondary teachers might more appropriately provide students with options to demonstrate their progress toward an individual learning goal, such as supporting claims using textual evidence. In response to potential hardships at home and learner preferences, some students might choose to video-record a verbal explanation, while others may opt to write an essay. Regardless of the assessment medium, learning should be reported in the grade book based upon the understanding of the learning goal. Thus, using a 1-4 integer scale, Suzy might receive a “4” in the grade book for supporting claims using textual evidence which reflects her proficiency of this particular learning goal.   

Report non-cognitive behaviors separately

Second, schools should report non-cognitive behaviors, such as homework completion and participation, separately, if at all. Honestly assessing these behaviors within flexible delivery models may be a challenge; therefore, it will be even more important to separate or omit non-cognitive behaviors in order to accurately communicate what a student has learned in flexible delivery settings.  When non-cognitive behaviors and academic learning are inappropriately combined, the result is a grade that fails to communicate anything meaningful to students or parents.

Emphasize what is learned, not when 

Third, school leaders should create a grading system emphasizing what students have learned over when they have learned it. Interruptions to learning in remote settings should be expected; therefore, educators will need to be flexible in their deadlines for demonstrations of learning to be submitted. Furthermore, when students have not yet demonstrated learning by the deadline, schools should consider utilizing lenient reassessment procedures such as providing students with a checklist of tasks to complete before providing additional assessment opportunities.  

With temporary grading changes implemented in the recent months, now is the time for schools to overhaul their grading practices on a more permanent basis. These three grading principles  are often packaged together as “standards-based grading.” While not new or unique to remote learning, they serve as guideposts for school leaders seeking to communicate learning in the “new normal.” It took over 100 years, but a public health crisis caused many schools to temporarily change their grading practices. Whether the “new norm” is here to stay, or schools eventually return to primarily face-to-face instruction, the current pandemic-era of learning provides school leaders with an opportunity to reclaim the purpose of grades to communicate student learning.