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.