2020 will go down as the year of COVID-19. Not just in the history books, but also on students’ official transcripts. It will become what many call the nickname “the asterisk year,” with each asterisk representing the grading policies chosen by the respective school or college in response to the crisis.
While K12 and higher education institutions (HEIs) initially responded similarly to the pandemic by switching to remote classes, grading policies varied widely. To facilitate transition and promotion to new grade levels, institutions struggled to implement the right grading system. Some schools offered relief in the form of flexible grading schemes. Many universities including Harvard announced that they are foregoing SAT and ACT scores – two of the most widely used college-entrance exams in the US . Columbia University in New York City, like many others, declared it will make all courses pass-fail, without any implications on students’ GPA. Several such variations were in use including credit-no credit, satisfactory-unsatisfactory, and so on: all essentially implying which students met the expectations, and which didn’t.
Grading has always been a necessary evil that puts learners into the ‘performance zone’ where after spending a term building competency, they get a chance to test all their hard work and gain confidence in their earned abilities. Contrarily, it is also the reason why many students and even teachers deviate from the cause of learning, making grading everything but a demonstration of learning.
A big source of worry for education leaders and administrators is what constitutes a ‘fair’ system of grading? The COVID-19 crisis has especially compounded this dilemma by flaring learning disparities, notably for students from low-income families, students of color, and students with disabilities.
As we move into 2021, the key issue for educators and policymakers is how to prevent more such “asterisk” years and mitigate the learning loss that happened due to the crisis. Does the grading system need altering for the most vulnerable who were behind even before the pandemic occurred?
We discuss all of that in this article and outline some immediate and futuristic recommendations for policymakers, district school leaders, and high school leaders.
K12 and HEIs were understandably overwhelmed, and under-equipped to effectively deal with the pandemic spreading like wildfire. Though they closed their doors and switched to remote learning, the disparities in learning continued to be widened as the results of assessments came in.
The gulf between haves and have-nots in education enlarged during the crisis, making inequity more rampant and visible. A report by National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that enrolment in undergraduate courses has gone down by 4.5% across all races and ethnicities in the US as compared to before-pandemic levels, of which Native American (-12.5%), Black (-7.4%), and Hispanic (-5.3%) saw the highest declines. The below-average enrolment levels among these communities suggest a more adverse impact of the pandemic on them.
What’s more troubling is the persistent disparities in achievement levels. While most students are falling behind learning, students of color are in worse shape. Reports show that students of color are about three to five months behind in learning, while white students lost one to three months. “We are in a pandemic. And don’t forget it is an inequitable pandemic,” says National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA).
The disparities were already at play locally and across the country for a long time. School and college closures further caused disproportionate learning losses and compounded the existing gaps. About two-thirds of variance in student scores occurs within schools in the US, shows a report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Every school in the US has adopted different grading standards based on their interpretation of academic rigor. Overall, a combination of factors is considered to determine one’s transition and promotion to the new grade.
All districts and schools have the autonomy to decide their grading system. However, letter grading is highly prevalent in the US. From A to F (with an absence of E), you can range from excellent to not so excellent. Every school, college, and HEIs can have different measures for awarding letter grades, but an ‘A’ almost always corresponds to the highest-Grade Point Average (GPA), a very important grading measure across the country. When applying to colleges and other schools, students are asked about their GPA for about everything – from scholarship to joining clubs.
Each of the letter grades also represent a percentage, which may or may not be indicated. Percentage shows a detailed view of how one fared in the classes. Furthermore, these are then related to GPA. A GPA of 4.0 means you are a great student who passed all her classes with flying colors, and a GPA of 2.5 or 3 indicates one perhaps being an average student.
Among many debates on the validity of GPA, one is its inability to level the playing field for students who started slow and took time to learn the ropes to improvement, which could be the case with students from low-income backgrounds given they may lack the wherewithal to get the head start others can afford.
The standardized test score is a major filtering factor in college admissions. Throughout the senior year, students burn the midnight oil studying for SATs and ACTs, and the ritual has been followed over many decades by students wanting to study in the US universities. Competition is usually very stiff, and a constant rise in these scores, especially among students from higher-income backgrounds, has put their role in admissions under scrutiny. Some say they exacerbate inequities but given the multiple variations of grading systems in high schools, these tests also standardize the ground for students from all schools – competitive, less competitive.
Statement of purpose and letter of recommendation form the backbone of a strong college application. It reflects student’s personalities and interests. It is, thus, for obvious reasons considered a significant aspect of school to college transition, not just in the US, but in education systems across most developed countries. Their role has risen further during the pandemic given the unreliability of academic grades and standardized tests this year.
Along with academic grades, and SAT scores, a strong extracurricular background can sway college admissions in one’s favor. From volunteering at a local animal shelter to surfing, everything counts toward demonstrating elusive leadership traits to the admission committee. Exactly, how much do they matter depends on the college one applies to. Differences in admission requirements, student populations, and class sizes can lead different admission committees to place varying degrees of confidence on ECs. Large and competitive colleges, for instance, place due importance on sports, thereby helping students cover their lack of grades with their wonder in athletics.
Higher education leaderships in the US have decided that old-fashioned system of grading will not work for admissions in the pandemic times. As a result, despite varying grading systems, many education leaders have delimited the importance of scores in admission and grade promotion. Colleges, including Swarthmore and Colby College, went ‘test optional’. University of California, among others, declared it will not consider SATs and ACTs mandatory for admissions. Many public high schools adopted pass-fail blanket grades for last year’s semesters.
While debates around the efficacy of these grading measures remain, three factors centered in the education equity crisis (highlighted by the pandemic) motivated changes in the age-old grading rubrics.
Virtual Learning. When schools switched to remote learning, while the medium kept the learning going, it wasn’t ideal (and still is not) for many schools, and communities with low-level internet connectivity, lack of devices, etc. Traditional grading could have impacted the GPA of students from these backgrounds more adversely than others.
Letters of recommendation. Many students raised concerns about teacher-disconnect. They shared that due to a lack of face-to-face relationship their teachers didn’t know them well enough, and thus couldn’t write informed LORs for them.
Extracurricular activities. With tournaments and competitions grinding to a halt, students lost on the volunteering opportunities to demonstrate skills in areas other than academics.
The crisis shifted the focus of education leaders from surface assessments to the impact of student’s personal environment and socio-economic differences on learning outcomes.
Will the new grading system continue? While most institutions may resort back to the old grading practices, the wave of revival has been caught by many. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is among the many institutions, which will continue with the new system. While they will keep letter grades moving forward, their meaning and representation will change dramatically. The intent of low grades will not be punitive, but to bring the focus back on learning. A student at MIT who gets a D will be allowed to choose on whether to show the grade on the transcript or not. This move will lend some autonomy to students to control their learning in higher education.
Joe Feldman, a veteran education leader, comes close to describing a fair grading system. “Grading must be both accurate and equitable. Former, so that grades describe one’s understanding of the course, and latter so they ensure that the system is not unfair to students with lesser resources.”
Feldman’s idea of ‘fair grading’ also questions the practice of averaging student performance. Considered an objective assessment practice, averaging actually hides what one has ultimately achieved at the end of the study period and makes success harder for students who start further. With so many students facing learning loss, reevaluating grading can give education leaders a diagnosis and a prescription of what learning must constitute.
Will your education system take COVID-19 as an opportunity to reevaluate and adapt to a fairer grading system?
Whether institutions will return to the old assessment system is not certain. What’s positive is learning inequities presently facing our students will not go away anytime soon. Learning loss will remain until addressed properly. Along with flexible grading practices, it requires reinventing learning keeping in mind the well-being and cultural concerns of students in a position of disadvantage.
At a high level, policymakers, distrithe autonomy toct and school leaders, and higher education leaders must:
Introduce summer programs or remedial offerings to help students cover learning lost last spring by mandating concurrent tutoring, office hours, or extra classroom time.
Give students more autonomy on their grading and listen to them when making decisions about academic grading.
Bring flexibility into grading, assignments, and deadlines.
Recognize the barriers facing instructors and staff members in shifting to new practices.
Focus on designing assessment system that fosters integrity and addresses systemic inequities.
COVID-19 has presented an ideal laboratory moment for education leaders to get the conversation started on grading reforms and make it more about learning. It exposed the practices perpetuating inequities going on by socio-economic backgrounds.
Finding that perfect assessment-learning balance is the challenge before future educators. Make your assessments such that they are delightfully demanding, and yet empathetic enough to students’ contexts; that they encourage learners to do their best, but also give them capacity and guidance to learn from their mistakes.