As I've listened in on a variety of conversations on "what to do about grades" during COVID-19, I've heard a lot of schools resigning themselves to a simple Incomplete/Pass. Some schools, particularly those who have a heavy emphasis on "achievement," have additionally proposed some version of "Pass with Distinction." This last category has frequently been challenged on equity grounds: many or most of the students receiving this designation will likely be those privileged with employed parents, reliable wifi, and a host of other advantages.
CVULearns in Vermont has settled on something a little different than anything I've seen so far, described here by Emily Rinkema, the district's Proficiency-based Learning Coordinator:
Originally, we had gone with 3 levels for semester courses: Inc, Pass, and Pass with Distinction. After many days of intense conversations about equity, access, and the extraordinary circumstances that a global pandemic brings, the decision was to simplify to 2 levels. Our leadership team felt strongly that keeping Pass with Distinction (rather than Pass) was an important symbolic recognition of how challenging these times are for so many in our community.
By using these two categories, CVU does not merely concede that accurate, equitable grading is impossible under the current circumstances; the school expresses its solidarity with students, parents, and the community at large during this crisis. Considering the two statements to choose from, this advocacy on the part of its students in the time of COVID-19 borders on eloquence.
Obviously, all sorts of stories and situations are unfolding behind the scenes of the two or three levels schools are using. Thankfully, many schools like CVU are emphasizing relationship over rigor, connection over accountability. Still, one can't look at these severely limited statements of student learning as ideal. Reflecting back on the report card grades used before COVID-19, we have to admit that they often weren't all that much better.
Right now, we are appropriately humbled about what a grade can represent. But should we honestly be that much more confident about what grades represent during "normal" times? How many crises, traumas, and inequities are embedded in those letters we say symbolize learning alone? How many stories and situations are erased by the signifier of a single letter?
We urgently need to find better ways of sharing student stories. Further, we need to find ways of enabling students to share their own stories. Whether that takes the form of a mastery transcript or a narrative evaluation prepared by both teacher and student, we are realizing the limits of the current system and our responsibility to fix it.
In this process, we will need to beat back the usual suspects who will swoop in and tell the world they can deliver an accurate, reliable, standalone account of student learning through testing or online learning modules. For this reason, part of this transition will necessarily involve communicating with employers and educational institutions in ways they can understand and accommodate. Colleges and universities with smaller admissions departments, for instance, may have difficulty processing richer, more descriptive, more student-centric reports.
Similarly, we will need to find ways to make this manageable for teachers. We can't, as Dylan Wiliam maintains, become a "counsel of perfection" that places impossible new demands on teachers. But the imperative of involving students and centering their stories perhaps provides a viable way forward, one where we share the work of assessment and reporting with students. The crisis of COVID-19 has revealed a real solidarity that can exist at the heart of the teacher-student relationship. Grades have too often intruded on this relationship, causing students to look elsewhere for affirmation and recognition.
It has been frequently noted that the verb assess comes to us from the Latin, assidere, to sit beside. As Jan Chappuis showed us, the purpose of assessment is not primarily to observe or measure learning (assessment of learning), but rather to support it (assessment for learning). Arguably, sitting beside our students has still other purposes: remediating inequity, fostering relationship, recognizing potential. When the time comes to sift through the wreckage left by this pandemic, can we build our assessment, grading, and reporting practices on these more humane foundations?
Those practices will likely take many forms, but at their core should be values of dialogue, conversation, community. Like CVU's "Pass with Distinction," our reporting also needs to always have a dimension of advocacy, of standing with our students and helping them tell their stories.
As we "pivot" to e-learning over the last couple weeks, I continue to lament what a shoddy platform Google Classroom is.
I remember when we first "pivoted" to Google Classroom so many years ago. I was happily hosting my classes on a combination of Moodle and Wikispaces when my school's enthusiastic technology coach started hounding me about Google Classroom, subtly deriding the modular, clunky, unintuitive platforms I preferred.
Eventually, I relented, moving my classes to the platform and choosing an appropriate banner for each of my 5 classes. My main issue with Google Classroom then and now is the stream interface. I get why the stream caught on as the primary vehicle for so much that happens online, why it's appropriate for many applications. With Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, I can understand posts disappearing under an endless cascade of new moments, reactions, updates.
With education, I just can't.
We hear a lot about data-driven or data-informed decisions. To some degree that language has gone underground and no longer enjoys the popularity it gained in the late 90s and early 2000s. But it still is a fundamental feature of neoliberalism's focus on the bottom line, on the need to find measurables that will facilitate the competition needed for innovation and entrepreneurship. We can safely say that dream hasn't panned out in education. In a kind of Baudrillardian irony, the intent to map the reality of education became a hyperreality of its own, engendering its own topography which we, the inhabitants of that landscape, now navigate.
Perhaps the want of value and meaning allowed this to happen without much questioning or resistance. As I've written before, education reform in this country has largely organized around what Tocqueville called “negative” doctrines—the peculiarly American solutions of ideological silence, negation, and effacement.
Here we are: sitting at home, staring into our own personal screens in whatever rooms we can find solitude. As administration, we are questioning the supports we have in place for our students. One of the things I've done as Dean of Students is keep an eye on the Ds and Es. Anyone who has 2 or more of them is on my radar. We're two weeks into Quarter 4 (we decided to cut Quarter 3 short due to the closure), and I've got a lot of kids on my radar. Rather than just email students and parents, we're going to call at least some of them. Those calls will be coming from our own personal phones, so I'm not sure how many people will pick up.
Additionally, I sent out an altered version of an email I usually send to kids telling them they need to attend the after-school Learning Assistance Program, staffed by classroom teachers and NHS students. Obviously, LAP isn't happening.