Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Assessments and Grading in the Midst of a Pandemic

By Thomas R. Guskey — April 13, 2020 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Today’s guest blog is written by Thomas R. Guskey, senior research scholar, University of Louisville, and professor emeritus, University of Kentucky.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges to educators throughout the world. Schools have had to change entire instructional programs in widely varied contexts with inequitable access to technology and other vital resources. School closures and requirements for social isolation have created untold hardships for students and their families, especially those with multiple children at different grade levels, whose parents cannot stay at home, whose English may not be the primary language, and where the parents are also teachers.

In making these changes, educators recognize that we can’t do everything we did before. We must examine our purposes, establish priorities, and decide what is truly most important. When it comes to assessments and grading, two major needs influence these decisions.

First is the need to encourage and support student learning. We need to provide the best possible learning experiences for students under these constrained and demanding conditions. We also must do our best to ensure all students learn well, achieve important academic goals, and are not hindered in their learning progress.

Second is the need to document and quantify student learning for the purposes of accountability. Schools need to verify the success of these alternative instructional programs. For students, we also need to complete report cards and fill in transcripts. For graduating seniors in many schools, we need to calculate class ranks, identify the top 10 percent, distribute academic honors, and name a valedictorian.

Unfortunately, under the adverse circumstances we currently face, these two needs pull us in different directions and prescribe different courses of action. To accomplish one means sacrificing aspects of the other. This brings new importance to establishing our priorities, especially in light of issues related to fairness and equity. For educators who make encouraging and supporting student learning their priority, however, the direction is clear.

Assessments
When it comes to assessments, supporting student learning means focusing on feedback instead of a score or grade. It means helping students to see assessments as learning tools that have an integral role in the learning process, rather than as evaluation devices that mark the end of learning. It means making clear to students that the primary purpose of assessments is to verify what they’ve learned and to identify any learning problems so we can work together to remedy those problems. Hence, cheating on an assessment serves no purpose other than to delay our efforts to help all students learn well.

An emphasis on feedback also means we must plainly articulate our learning goals and the criteria we use to determine when students meet those goals. We need to be clear about how we will know if students “get it” and not worry about quantifying their performance on a scale with 101 different levels. Most important, we need to plan alternative approaches to help students when they don’t get it. This change eliminates the need to distinguish formative and summative assessments. If our focus is on feedback, then all assessments are formative until students get it. When results show they get it, then the assessment becomes summative.

Grading
When it comes to grading, encouraging and supporting student learning means ensuring grades accurately reflect what students have learned and are able to do, not when or how they learned it. As schools physically close and move to online learning, most attempt to accomplish this in one of two ways.

In schools required to give grades for the current term, even when not all students have adequate online access, grades are typically based on evidence of student learning gathered up to the time of school closure. But then they do three things:


  1. Add an asterisk to the grade to indicate it is based on the portion of the course completed up to the time of school closure.
  2. Develop specific procedures that allow students to improve that grade by redoing assignments or assessments, even when the grade remains based on only a portion of the course.
  3. Develop additional procedures for students to fulfill all course requirements and complete the course, with assistance from teachers, in order to remove the asterisk from their grade. Schools vary in the timelines they set for both #2 and #3 because the length of school closures remains uncertain. Ensuring fairness and equity for all students remains paramount in making these decisions.

Other schools, however, recognize the extraordinary nature of our current situation and are taking the same path as many elite colleges and universities: They are shifting temporarily to “pass/fail,” “satisfactory/unsatisfactory,” or “credit/incomplete” grading for the current school year. The University of Chicago, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stanford University, along with many others, all recently decided to temporarily shift to pass/fail grading after switching to remote learning this semester in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The key to successful pass/fail grading rests in establishing clear criteria for “pass” and making those criteria challenging, rigorous, and attainable. This doesn’t mean lowering standards. Rather, it means being clear about the standards and doing all we can to ensure students meet them. Excellent examples of similar pass/fail grading include certification examinations in medicine, nursing, law, military, or civil service.

The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates said, “Desperate times require desperate measures.” What he meant is that in adverse circumstances, actions that might have been rejected under other circumstances may become the best choice. And these are certainly desperate times.

Pass/fail or credit/incomplete grades may prove to be the fairest and most equitable grading option available to educators in these desperate times. By making student learning our primary focus; helping students share the same focus; ensuring the criteria we establish for passing or earning credit are clear, rigorous, and attainable; and then doing everything we can to help ALL students meet those criteria; we will make the best of these difficult and trying times.

Connect with Tom Guskey on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP