Grading and the Human Spirit

Apr 29, 2020 by

How, if at all, should students be graded for this surrealistic academic year?  Could it possibly be on traditional criteria?  If so, would such evaluations be credible and legitimate?  Would they pass the “smell test”?
Who’s fooling whom? 

Perhaps during these days of strife, it’s a handy survival skill to fool others or consent to fool oneself and thereby be guided by the illusion of normalcy.
On Tuesday, the DOE announced its grading policy.Speaking only for myself, it sounds sensible, if not revolutionary.  It is flexible, practical and humane.  

In some instances it allows for extended time and also summer school work. Work assessment is based on wide and multiple criteria as suitable.  Categories of evaluation are feasibly embracing and elastic though some critics might prefer them more restrictive and defined.

My understanding is that no student will be retained in their current grade when the 2020-2021 year starts. That’s fair.

Since numerical grades roughly correspond with letter grades, why not allow that option also? That’s a minor concern and doesn’t rise to the level of a gripe.

Grading  elementary and middle school kids with either “meets standards” or  “needs improvement” may encourage a wildly broad range of judgment that can be confusing, because neither phrase gives special excellence its due.  Still, maybe it is the lesser of two evils, as many outstanding students do not have the means to display their excellence with distance learning.

That does not call into  question their diligence or or mastery and does not constitute failure or even weakness.In these anomalous times, it is fitting that failure is not an option, although as a rule it is an omnipresent one.

It would have been ridiculous and indeed impossible for schools to apply their pre-pandemic grading policies intact with no adjustment.  Factoring in the catastrophic disruption and literal dislocation when determining the path to fair appraisal is by no means a prescription for a framework of “anything goes”.

The DOE seems to have struck a balance.  

Grading must accurately reflect actual student performance and where mastery cannot be measured,the student should get the “benefit of the doubt”. This is not a charitable gift to assuage them during Covid-19. It is a concession driven by the over-riding imperative of our commitment to uncompromised equity.

More than a quarter of a million New York City public school families have no technological devices and even if they did, their grade should not be contingent on their fluency with these suddenly mandated tools. since it’s not curriculum -related. 

Because of lack of options, rather than their suitability, these devices and software programs have become the modality, whether or not the preference, of teacher-student communication.

Not even a plague could be an acceptable excuse for penalizing children for their economic disadvantage.  It is not something they are guilty of. And the DOE understands that, I hope

And it seems to be recognized that no official action should be possible that might conceivably aggravate the existing challenges already faced by children with special needs.

The DOE says it puts a premium on “parent engagement”.  It may not always seem that they do,, but it is a laudable objective.  They should with persistence and patience listen and frequently heed some of the recommendations made parent advocates.

Narrative reports from elementary school teachers are far more meaningful in the present state than conventional grading would have been. It is far more idea-focused. No “final” evaluation for the whole year’s performance should be below what had been earned as of the date that schools were closed.  Neither should otherwise eligible high school students suffer delayed graduation.  So be it.

Is this magnanimity to the point of anarchy?  Hardly so.  It is not shoddy sentimentality at all. It does not make a farce of grading or amount to misplaced generosity.  Quite the contrary.  New York City was relatively slow to admit the temporary new reality.

According to Chalkbeat, Chicago has a “no harm” policy, and Denver students will not get a letter grade unless they request one.

And in what sounds like a prank, San Francisco allegedly demands that every student get an “A”.  If true, it would render the entire concept of grading frivolous, alienate many students and their families and make a sham of every professed belief in standards.

The grading of students should not involve agonized ruminations, even in uncomplicated times. In case of impasse in the teacher’s mind, the default should be to do no harm and credit the child.

New York City schools closed coincidentally around when the fourth and last “marking period” began for many schools. That final grade is traditionally in middle schools a composite of all four quarters, not simply the last.  If it were otherwise, then a student could goof off all year, do yeoman’s work starting in the spring, and ace the year.

So why not freeze the grade at what had been deserved at the end of the third quarter, allowing only for a projected improvement?  Teacher discretion should be preserved, as long as it is not mean-spirited in this emergency. Evaluations are mirrors, not weapons.

No good person of any rank will exploit dire circumstances.  In a crunch, most supervisors will hold their nefarious instincts in abeyance.
When schools were padlocked in late March, there had already been plenty of time since September to recognize exemplary work but insufficient chance to conclusively condemn still unproven inadequacy.

So let the ingenious  rubric of our grading be one that is conducive to healing.

During these hellish times, let’s judge each other, whoever we are and whatever our sway we have over others, by the more illuminated energies of the human spirit.  And prove to our students that it is at least as real as the injunction to wear a mask.

Ron Isaac

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