Of the thousands of memes circulating on social media attempting to find humor in these difficult times, there is one that shows a principal standing outside a teacher’s home by a sliding glass door with a clipboard. He’s holding a sign that reads, “I’m here for your observation.”

It’s an easy laugh because we know it’s absurd to judge an educator’s performance by how they’re faring under a sudden shift to remote instruction. It’s not much of a leap to conclude that it would be equally absurd to measure student progress through traditional grading practices.

There is no question that teaching under COVID-19 is not equivalent to the level of education provided—and the impact achieved—by New Jersey’s public schools at any other time.  Without traditional in-person attendance in schools, traditional grading policies will not be a true gauge of student progress. They will more likely be a reflection of a family’s income and resources. Grades have a real-world impact, and how well a family can cope during a pandemic should not become an obstacle to opportunities.

We must be mindful of equity and potential unintended consequences when considering grading policies and practices as we make our way through this uncharted territory. Issues may include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • Students lack traditional access to their teachers and educational support professionals.
  • Students lack equal access to devices and reliable internet connections.
  • Students may lack access to a quiet and supportive environment.
  • Students may not enjoy high levels of support and encouragement from adults in the home, who themselves are under considerable stress.
  • Districts and schools have implemented a range of remote learning plans, ranging from virtual learning to paper-based packets. Disparities exist within schools and across districts.
  • Special education, 504, and English language learner accommodations and modifications in a virtual/remote environment cannot possibly replicate the full range of accommodations and modifications available and accessible in a face-to-face environment.

At njea.org/covid-19 is a section titled “NJEA Professional Development Guidance,” where you’ll find “Grading Policies and Practices under COVID-19.” Below are several proposals from the NJEA Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division (NJEA PDII) that you’ll find there. Ultimately, state regulations empower boards of education to approve grading policies, but teachers, administrators and school boards should consider adopting some of these practices as they look for creative solutions to the evaluation of student progress.

Eliminate hard deadlines

The goal should be for students to complete the work to the best of their ability. Rather than penalize students for missing deadlines, remove deadlines and encourage students to submit assignments as they are able.

Evaluate assignments as complete, in progress or incomplete

As a replacement for letter or numerical grades on individual assignments, indicate whether assignments have been completed, attempted or not attempted by students. Provide ongoing feedback to students on individual assignments that move them in the right direction on the continuum toward completion of the best work they can do under the circumstances.

Freeze grades or adjust the marking period

Schools could “freeze” the grades from the marking period, or at the point of school building closure, as a minimum final grade for the remaining marking period. Schools and districts could adjust the marking period calendar to have ended on the school building closure date, with the subsequent final marking period encompassing the entirety of the school building closure. (Note that at press time, April 15, the governor had not yet announced whether school buildings would reopen in this academic year.)

Adopt pass/fail grades

Students complete assignments according to the district’s remote learning plan. If students complete the assignments appropriately, meeting the basic level of minimum expectations, they pass the course. GPA calculations should not be altered by pass/fail courses.

Flexible Practices

Despite the way grading policies and practices are implemented, students should be able to make an appeal for a pass/fail evaluation, grade modifications, and/or dropping a GPA calculation if performance is inconsistent with the individual’s academic history or if a letter grade is requested by the student and their guardian.

Students across our state are experiencing varying degrees of trauma related to the COVID-19 pandemic as many did in the wake of Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Research on the impact of natural disasters indicates that students may experience higher levels of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder that will greatly influence their performance. You will also find among the resources provided by the NJEA PDII Division for grading, citations to that research.

It’s not business as usual, and it would be unethical to maintain traditional policies and practices as if it is. Instead of focusing on strict accountability for our students, we must refocus our energies toward empathy, grace and understanding.

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