Kara Newhouse

Switching to Pass/Incomplete

For the fourth quarter, San Leandro’s secondary students will receive a “pass” or “incomplete” instead of a letter grade. In his guidance for grading during COVID-19 closures, Feldman recommended this model for schools that cannot drop grades entirely. It differs from the more familiar pass/fail model available in some colleges, because it does not punish students who cannot keep up during school closures. At San Leandro, students who receive an incomplete can finish their work during the summer or within six weeks of schools reopening. After that, the mark would become a “no pass.”

Patel noted that some districts have decided to let third quarter grades stand in for the final grade, but she said that’s a disservice to students who were not passing at the time that school buildings closed. In contrast, San Leandro will convert third quarter scores to a pass/no pass to be combined with the fourth quarter pass/incomplete for the overall semester grades of high schoolers. This approach gives students the opportunity to raise their grade either during distance learning or within six weeks of schools reopening.

Feldman said that educators may be tempted to add a “pass+” option to recognize high-achievers, but he advised against it, saying that “the only students who can take advantage of that are the ones who have supports,” he said. And Eakins noted that asking students to choose between a letter grade or a pass/incomplete option similarly replicates disadvantage.

Multiple Forms of Feedback

At San Leandro’s elementary schools, instead of grades, teachers will issue third trimester report cards with only narrative comments. They also will hold phone or video conferences with parents to discuss how a student is doing, next steps for the summer and what support might be needed in the fall. At all grade levels, high-quality feedback makes a difference in student learning. Continuing to give that feedback is one of Feldman’s recommendations for grading during COVID-19. Focusing on that, rather than on the pressure that is often associated with grades, he said, sends the message that teachers care about what’s happening in students’ lives.

Patel said that figuring out how to maintain the loop of teacher feedback and student growth during distance learning is as important as deciding whether to assign letter grades. She noted that while educators already knew that relationships matter, “Right now it’s just an absolute gatekeeper. If kids don’t want to open up that Chromebook to get in a Zoom with us … they can completely shut down.” San Leandro’s emergency distance learning plan asks teachers to check in with students twice per week. 

An opportunity to rethink grading

For the past three years, San Leandro’s administrators and teachers have worked with Feldman to adopt equitable grading practices. That work put them in a good position to think critically about grading during a pandemic. For others, coronavirus is shining a new spotlight on disparities that affect student outcomes. Eakins and Feldman hope that spotlight will stay on when schools reopen. Many districts have distributed laptops and wireless hot spots to families without Internet, for instance. Will those supports continue to be available after coronavirus? “We could easily go back to business as usual, ” Eakins said. “This is a time for us to create a new normal and plan ahead. We can really start challenging the inequities that have been around pre-COVID-19 and move forward.”

Feldman hopes that this crisis will prompt educators to reflect on the purpose of grades. Behavioral metrics, such as homework completion and class participation — what he referred to as “all that bean counting that teachers normally spend a lot of time on” — do not assess what students actually know, he said. They also make grades susceptible to implicit bias. With some of those metrics gone during distance learning, will teachers consider eliminating them altogether?

From his research all over the country, Feldman knows that even talking about changing grading practices can be contentious. But Patel, whose district has done it, considered the process worthwhile. “That work wasn’t just about being intellectually interested in grading,” she said. “It came from a lived teacher and family experience of wanting to make sure that grades are authentic.”

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