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School Leaders

COVID-19 Demands Equitable Grading Solutions

By Melissa Connelly
April 13, 2021

Melissa Connelly is OneGoal’s Chief Executive Officer. She shares her reflections on the impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had on the educational landscape and the need for equitable grading practices.

It’s been thirteen months now since the pandemic upheaved our lives. As a mom, I have been on the receiving end of emails for my own children missing a login or struggling to engage in virtual school. As a leader at OneGoal, I look at the broader picture and can see an even more alarming picture of the toll the pandemic has taken on young people and their teachers nationwide.

Those of us in this movement—secondary schools, postsecondary institutions, other equity oriented organizations—are reflecting on what we can do in our own sphere and collaboratively to ensure we respond to the immense barriers our students have faced through a lens of equity, one of OneGoal’s values.

In times of crisis, people come together and rally in support. But often the focus shifts and the momentum wanes once the immediate concern is addressed, even though the real recovery will take much longer—months, often years. As schools begin to reopen, with just a few weeks before the end of the spring term, we are at that moment where we breathe a collective sigh of relief, but know that for the real recovery, there is still so much to do, especially around equitable grading.

Given the enormity of challenges from the pandemic, it is no surprise to see high school failure rates skyrocketing this year. Some districts have reported an increase of failure rates of 50%. Pausing to reflect on what those failures mean for the future of our 16, 17, or 18-year-old students forces us to ask hard questions of ourselves. The research is clear that increased failure rates lead to disengagement and often to increased drop-out rates. For those who make it to high school graduation, those failing grades affect their GPAs, limiting their college options and dramatically lowering their likelihood of persisting or completing a postsecondary degree.

The damage caused by the pandemic doesn’t simply go away once students return to the classroom. While there is no one right or easy answer, we wanted to lift up some promising equitable grading practices from across the sector:

Educators and School Leaders

  • Privilege competency-based assessments: Give students the opportunity to demonstrate mastery even if they didn’t attend remote class. Our schools in Houston are offering extra time and flexibility with assignment turn-ins as well as utilizing other assignments that “test” the same material to prove mastery. OneGoal’s new online learning platform Canvas supports these efforts by offering frequent, shortened assessments.
  • Provide multiple opportunities for success: Consider innovating on the approach to end-of-term finals. Providing opportunities to take the exam more than once will allow students to focus their studies on the most important areas for improvement.

District and Systems-Level Leaders

  • Remove or extend time-bounds: Adjust policies for students to change a failing grade to a passing grade by making up the work during the summer or in the following semester without having to retake the course. Some of our districts in the Bay Area of California have used “no mark” grades instead of Fs after the first semester to give students an opportunity to make up work. This approach to equitable grading takes away the idea of permanent failure and shows students that there is a path to completion. Our partnership with Southern New Hampshire University and Duet is a strong example of young adult education shifting to a self-paced, mastery based grading model without deadlines or failing grades.
  • Revisit standardized testing requirements: For example, New York state will require students to take only the four Regents exams that are required by federal standardized testing laws: exams in English, Algebra I, earth science, and living environment. All other Regents exams will be canceled, and the tests will be uncoupled from graduation requirements.
  • Conduct a district or state-level equity analysis: Leverage performance data to analyze if there is a disproportionate impact on a specific demographic community. Engage your stakeholders to support the design and implementation of an equity plan to address the practices, budget discrepancies, and other factors that contributed to or exacerbated those gaps.

Higher Education Leaders

  • Offering delayed admissions and more personal support for incoming students: You may have admitted students who ultimately did not meet their high school graduation requirements. Instead of repealing offers, some higher education institutions are preparing to provide more robust academic and/or financial support for students. For example, State University of New York offers one on one with counselors.
  • Flexibility in GPA threshold for the Class of 2022: Consider opportunities for a more holistic admissions approach. Adjust the algorithm to not unfairly penalize students who had additional barriers to performance in virtual school.
  • Offering “parachute courses”: One of OneGoal’s postsecondary partners, Dominican University, allowed students to have “parachute courses” which meant students could re-take them and would not have a failing grade listed on their transcript; all of our Fellows had a first year advisor/mentor that provided lots of 1:1 support to try and address academic struggles.

As partners in this work, our hope is that when we look back 10 years from now we will feel confident that the choices we made did not exacerbate inequity. On the contrary, we will have met this unique moment with equity-oriented solutions that affirm our students, keeping them on their educational paths, and helping them come out stronger and more resilient.