Schools across the country are reporting growing concerns about the number of students receiving failing grades during the pandemic, especially in remote learning settings. Some argue that grading practices and policies in effect prior to the pandemic do not match current circumstances and needs. In frustration, some schools and school districts are changing or are contemplating changes to grading scales to allow lower quiz, test, and project scores to be assigned higher grades. For example, a passing grade might be assigned for answering 50% of test items correctly or meeting half of the criteria for a given project or assignment rather than the traditional standard of 70% or 75%. In other cases, schools have moved to grading based on a simple pass/fail judgment rather than deal with lower student performance.
On their face, these seem like unfortunate compromises driven by the need to accommodate less than ideal learning conditions. In effect, they are designed to make disappointing results appear better and potentially obscure a drop in performance. In the short term, such shifts can avoid negative perceptions about learning conditions and performance. However, they hold the potential to create long-term problems and complicate the difficult educational challenges the pandemic already is creating.
Among the most obvious implications of lowering standards and obscuring performance is the covering up and the risk of ignoring gaps in learning that will leave students further behind. Meanwhile, the grades some students receive will inaccurately indicate higher levels of performance and more learning. The teachers these students will have in the coming year will have little on which to rely as they attempt to move these students’ learning forward.
In some cases, lower academic performance may be the result of an instructional pace that assumes the same capacity for progress present during in-person, pre-pandemic conditions. Of course, expecting all students to learn at the same pace has never been a good premise for instruction and learning. We have always known that students learn at different rates and in different ways.
Rather than plowing ahead expecting students to keep up, now is a good time to create flexibility that allows students to progress at a pace that supports their learning and avoids their being left behind. When students are able to learn at a rate that matches their readiness, they almost always are more successful. Of course, some students may not be exposed to as much content, but learning is much better than mere exposure.
Rather than shifting grading scales or abandoning measurement of learning growth, the interests of students, and by extension, our interests would be better served by limiting the amount of content and skill instruction to what is essential. If students completely and deeply learn what they are taught, they will be more successful in the long term.
Now is also a good time to consider how students can become more fully engaged in and committed to their learning. Traditionally, schools have relied on compliance as a key driver of student learning and performance. While this approach has worked for some students, it has not been adequate for far too many learners. Of course, depending on student compliance to drive behavior and learning in a remote learning setting is a low-leverage strategy. We control far too few variables to force compliance. Only by fostering commitment and cooperation can we expect consistent learning engagement and progress. Nevertheless, this approach requires us to slow down, at least initially, as we nurture the skills and habits necessary to succeed in a learning environment where learners are co-investors in the teaching and learning process.
The stakes are high as we approach a full year of living with the pandemic. Many students have not made the progress we would like. Some have made little progress at all. Now is not the time to lower standards or otherwise ignore the challenge to better support learners’ needs. Rather, we need to recommit to finding ways to ensure learning success. We may need to slow the pace to match the readiness of our students and explore more completely what will lead our students to fully invest in their learning. These options seem preferable to ignoring or covering up the problem.