Opinion
Assessment Opinion

Grading Has Always Been an Imperfect Exercise. COVID-19 Made It Worse

In search of a more-equitable record of student learning
By Lory Walker Peroff — June 01, 2021 4 min read
A student's grades are unknown
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To be honest, I kind of hate the end of the school year. I don’t particularly enjoy the raucous behavior that accompanies the final weeks of school. I also am not fond of saying goodbye to the wonderful little humans that I have grown to know and love over the course of the school year.

But the one thing that every year brings me a great deal of stress and hand-wringing is completing student report cards. How can I possibly reduce the complexity of each student’s social, emotional, and academic learning to a couple of letters per standard?

Report cards are a staple of the American school systems. One would be hard-pressed to find a student in America that didn’t celebrate, dread, or perhaps even intentionally conceal a report card sent home from school.

Parents also anxiously anticipate grades sent home on report cards, often doling out rewards or punishments based on their child’s marks. It is no surprise how common it is for well-meaning parents to incentivize high marks when report cards are often viewed as a possible indicator of a child’s future success in life.

And rightly so. It turns out, it is not only anxious parents who look closely at report cards. According to 2019 Forbes reporting on college admissions, “Students’ academic achievements—which include grades, strength of curriculum, and admission test scores—constitute the most important factors in the admission decision.” In no uncertain terms, data collected and disseminated on report cards can make or break a student’s access to higher education as well as increase (or decrease) the likelihood of future successes in life.

Teachers across the nation are in some ways writing their students’ futures on report cards. With so much on the line, it is no wonder report cards fill me with anxiety.

The trepidation that accompanies report card time has reached another level this year. Students and teachers alike have had to pivot with head-spinning frequency from online school to hybrid settings to face-to-face instructions with social distancing, all while surviving a global pandemic. With the rise in unemployment that accompanied the pandemic, many students endured changes in their home life as well as school life. An estimated 40,000 children across the United States lost a parent to COVID-19. Racial reckonings spread throughout the country.

Despite all the immense changes in students and teachers’ lives, one thing hasn’t changed. The report card I will send home with students in two weeks is exactly the same as the one I have sent home for the past 10 years. This is not only unfair but illogical. How can we use the same way to record data given the unusual circumstances this year has presented?

This year calls for deep reflection of how we collect data as well as the actual data collected. The first component of the report card is often attendance. Teachers take roll call and mark down which pupils are present and which are absent. But as the pandemic blew the doors off the classroom, roll call looked different. In many schools, pandemic safety measures necessitated that students attend school virtually for at least some portion of the year. While (virtual) attendance remained a requirement, not all students had equal access to the space, technology, and family support to attend school in this new way.

Students who already had access to quality technology, robust internet connectivity, and guidance at home were more likely to attend school while others lacking resources missed school through no fault of their own. The pandemic has shed a bright light on this inequity that can no longer be ignored.

Attendance and grades are connected. In a typical school year, students work hard to earn the marks recorded on their report cards. This year, again, is different. Students lacking technological resources struggled to complete assignments and therefore made it harder for teachers to truly assess learning. In my own experience, an increase in missing work has made grading exponentially more complicated.

Also further invalidating this year’s grades, some reports suggest that cheating to attain coveted report card grades may have been made easier and more common by virtual learning. Truly assessing learning this year has been radically different, but the way we record learning on report cards has remained unchanged.

So, what now? Far from having the answers, my head is swimming with questions. How can we create a more equitable way to record student learning? In what ways is bias present in my own grading practices? How can reporting systems used in public schools across our nation increase (not decrease) opportunities for all our students?

Teachers, administrators, and policymakers need to take a deeper look at how to promote equity in our reporting systems to best meet the needs of all our learners. There are many things that this year will be remembered for; ignoring the opportunity to deeply rethink attendance and grading policies recorded on report cards should not be one of them. If we don’t all come together to do what is right for all our children, this lack of action will be a stain on our own permanent records.

A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2021 edition of Education Week as How Can We Rethink Report Cards?

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