Child writing

Not-Normal Times Need Not-Normal Grades

At 8:21 pm on Thursday, January 20th, my principal called me to confirm another positive COVID case in my homeroom. This marked our fourth transition to remote/hybrid instruction this year. This time, I have 13 students in person and 14 students learning from home over Google Meet.

To be clear, the district doesn’t require me to teach remote and in-person students simultaneously. Official policy says all I have to do is provide 90 minutes of instruction to students quarantined at home. But it’s not reasonable to expect that third-graders can just complete assignments from Google Classroom without guidance and support, so my co-teacher and I strive to include them as much as possible.

We’ve mastered the less-than-24-hour shuffle to stuff computers, chargers, headphones, pencils, and freshly printed packets into jumbo Ziploc bags. Despite our best efforts, though, we have not mastered hybrid instruction to the point where students can be held accountable for engagement, performance, and assessment at the same level as if they were completely in-person. 

As individual teachers, I know we are all giving our absolute best. But as a system of schooling, we have failed students in so many ways, and this year we continue to struggle. Let’s not add insult to injury by adding failing marks to students’ report cards. Grades do not tell the story of what is happening this year.

Grades Are about Our Students, Not about Us

Grading is a sensitive topic for many educators and administrators–one that is rarely discussed in an honest and research-based way. For those of us in the classroom it often feels personal. As veteran educator and thought leader Joe Feldman has written, “a teacher’s grading policies and practices reveal how [we] define and envision and [our] relationship to students, what we predict best prepares them for success, [our] beliefs about students, and [our] self-concept as a teacher.” 

But we cannot make students’ quarterly marks about us, whether we are teachers, administrators, or district officials. There is too much at stake. Given what we already know about how inequity is baked into grading inputs and outcomes, we must use this moment to own the reality that traditional grading systems perpetuate the very gaps in opportunity and achievement that we are trying to close.  A step in the right direction would be to eliminate these grades for the quarter.

Schools Have Not Returned to Normal

This quarter–and the effects of the Omicron spike in schools–remind me of the very beginning of the pandemic.

On the partly sunny, winter afternoon of March 17, 2020, my resident teacher and I scrambled to assemble two weeks worth of remote learning materials in response to Governor Pritzker’s state mandated school closures to curb the spread of the coronavirus. At this point in the pandemic, questions were whirring but information was sparse and inconsistent. Our staff had high hopes of a “return to normal” after spring break.

While awaiting next steps, we recorded instructional videos, checked in with families, and tried to maintain a semblance of community via a classroom blog. Despite the end of the third quarter approaching within the month, grades were the furthest things from our minds. We were concerned about the psychological, emotional, and physical well- being of our students and their caregivers. When the two week closure became an extended shut down and eventual realization that we would not return to the school building that year, conversations about what it meant to assess students and evaluate progress in this new, tumultuous context were front and center. 

At that time, district leadership understood our reality and that of our students. From the start, Chicago Public Schools committed to the idea that grading during remote learning should do no harm to a student’s academic standing.  In spring of 2020 the Chicago Public Schools, like some other Illinois districts, updated their guidance regarding grades and promotion,  in an effort to avoid penalizing students for circumstances that were out of their control. 

Grading Policy Went Back to Normal; School Didn’t

It’s now nearly two years later, just days away from the end of the second quarter.  Students and caregivers citywide face many of the same challenges as in spring 2020: disrupted learning in remote and hybrid contexts, lost instructional days, unreliable internet connectivity, slow Chromebooks, and the limitations of distance learning. 

In fact, one could argue that matters now are actually worse. This year, instead of a predictable remote learning schedule with materials prepared in advance, we are at the whims of erratic COVID-19 quarantines.  We now have no adjusted expectations for what learning to prioritize or how to measure student learning.  We have no official interest or support in how students are holding up in the face of such change and loss. Given the students’ quarter two experience, Chicago Public Schools should without doubt allow teachers to override final letter grades with a pass/fail.

Although the district’s attempt to “return to normal” this year has resulted in more in-person learning time than last year, our grading policies have “returned to normal” without consideration for the number of remote learning hours many of our students continue to experience.  I acknowledge there is no perfect solution. Even the previous pass/fail guidance was met with mixed responses. But it is clear that not all students in the district have had the same opportunity to receive consistent, in-person instruction and individualized support and interventions. In these circumstances, any attempt to assign numerical percentages and letter grades will do harm and reinforce inequity.

Letter Grades Aren’t Telling the Story

The CPS Grading Practices Guidelines explain that grades ought to “provide feedback related to student academic achievement expressed through the Illinois Learning Standards and/or learning objectives.” Letter grades are failing to do this. A December WBEZ story analyzed student grades patters across all of CPS and found that grading disparities worsened between students in schools serving mostly low-income families and schools in wealthier neighborhoods. Do these grade reflect differences in actual achievement or in opportunity to learn?

We also see this failure in the panic so many families experienced upon receiving second-quarter progress reports.Caregivers are concerned about the gaps in their children’s content knowledge, skill development, and social emotional capacities. They want to know how they can partner with school staff to help address them. Letter grades do not effectively address their concerns.

Students and families deserve transparency, as do educators. None of us can succeed in our roles without it.  In the long term, we need to rethink how we accurately and holistically communicate student progress.  But in the short term, we can and must hit pause on grades, because no letter grade I post this month will provide any meaningful feedback about my students’ academic achievement.

Photo by Alyssa Sieb on nappy.co.

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Ashley McCall

Ashley McCall serves as a 3rd grade bilingual English/Language Arts teacher at César Chávez Multicultural Arts Center on the south west side of Chicago and a teacher representative on the Chávez Local School Council. Follow her on Twitter at @ashlm_12.

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