Flexible Grading: Pandemic Edition

game changer


By Amber Chandler   

Right about now, you’ve probably had it up to here with the word “flexible.” I can almost guarantee you that someone has asked you to be flexible, even when that proposition seems impossible. I’m right there with you, as I’ve now taught in person, remotely, hybrid, fully masked, 6-feet distanced, 3-feet distanced, with students quarantining for 10, 20 or sometimes even 30 days of a quarter. I have kiddos who have had COVID-19. I have kiddos who have never recovered from the trauma of isolation and others who seem to have never missed a beat, some who are thriving and others who aren’t attending. Flexible is my middle name. 

The fact is, the system of school has had to bend or it would break (and some would argue that it has, but that is another blog, for another day). How do you give tests in this environment? How are students supposed to keep up when they are quarantining? Is there a rule for how long we give students to complete work? If they missed instruction, can they do a retake? Shouldn’t all tests be open notes because those who are at home could use their notes? Are any common assessments actually comparable when they are all given in such a wide variety of circumstances? If you aren’t spinning from these questions, you probably aren’t in education. We are being flexible. 

However, bear with me. There are other reasons to be flexible, other than living through the chaos of a pandemic. I’ve been interested in flexible grading for about five years, and I wrote about it in Flexible Grading: Bending Not Breaking in a World Obsessed with Grades, and engaged with other educators in the webinar Isn’t It About Time for Flexible Grading? The goal, at the time, was to give teachers a different perspective, one that allowed them to free themselves from some detrimental “rules” of teaching: grade everything; everything has to be due at the same time; everyone must do the same tasks to be fair. 

The pandemic has prompted me to re-examine these principles, and I’ve found that now, more than ever, we need to be flexible regarding grading for three key reasons:

There is now flexibility in the workplace that has never existed before. According to Entrepreneur, big companies have committed to “lean into” remote work, even when the pandemic no longer necessitates it. You can read the whole article here, but when the largest corporations in the world are becoming more flexible, education should allow itself to follow suit. The article states, “Remote-team leaders can engage employees by taking stock of proven unnecessary practices and reinventing them for a more effective future.” If this is the future of work, we too can “take stock of unnecessary practices and reinvent them.” This means, for me, to stop grading so much and instead provide feedback, models, and peer conferencing. What pre-pandemic grading practice will you reconsider? 

Many colleges and universities are making SATs and ACTs optional, or eliminating them altogether. Many schools (particularly high schools) have held themselves to this benchmark, causing undue stress and anxiety; and studies have found the tests extremely discriminatory. The more money you have, the more test preps you can take, the more tutoring you can get, and the more free time you have available to prepare for a test—not for life itself—favor some above others. As it turns out, it is how students perform over time that is the better indicator of their future success. A California State University panel has declared, “We ended up spending a fair amount of time trying to overcome and account for what is such a challenging process. And now to see that it has little to no predictive power and that a GPA alone is actually better … makes it abundantly clear to me that we can clear this off of the plates of young people and their families.” Educators can, and should, be trying to prepare students for the long haul, not one-time events. 

Throughout the pandemic, districts have had to change the way they grade students, and it was frequently teachers who pointed out the obvious: The traditional grading system was not made for this. The pandemic has made it abundantly clear that there have been students who struggled all along to meet the traditional expectations, and we are finally in a position to reconsider what matters. 

As the pandemic has now interrupted its third school year, many educators have reached their own conclusions about grading and what matters. As for me, I’ve doubled down on eliminating toxic grading practices that favor those students with affluence; an abundance of family support; and rewarded executive function skills, not knowledge and growth. I’d love to hear what you think grading practices should look like in a post-pandemic world! Connect with me on Twitter @MsAmberChandler to continue this important conversation.