Grading During—and Beyond—COVID

The traditional grading system undermines learning and reinforces inequity even in so-called “normal” times, but alternatives are possible.

Grading During—and Beyond—COVID

Last spring, as colleges across the country shifted their classes online in response to the COVID crisis, discussions began about how grading might change. Many colleges offered pass/fail or credit/no credit options; some called for a universal pass policy. Faculty urged their colleagues to be flexible about deadlines and types of assignments. Others raised equity issues, noting that lower-income students -- already more likely to have additional job and family responsibilities, and more likely to lack computers or reliable internet service -- would have a harder time adjusting to online education.

It may be hard to remember, but before this crisis hit, flexibility and accommodation in grading were often discussed as if they were the problem. For decades, “grade inflation,” the idea that grades had risen over time and were too high, was commonly written about as “out of control,” a “crisis,” or even, yes, “an epidemic.” After the celebrity college admissions scandal, Tom Lindsay, writing in Forbes, claimed that grade inflation was “the other college admissions scandal,” “a moral issue” because grades “teach the young how to … deal successfully with life’s inevitable difficulties.” Such articles, like most media coverage of higher education, focus on elite schools, even though only 3 percent of U.S. undergraduate students are enrolled in them, while more than 40 percent attend community colleges. These articles assume college as a necessary series of rituals involving risk and pain as a form of initiation. They seem oddly unaware of how irrelevant grading practices are in the world outside of school. They also ignore the reality of many college students’ lives which, even before the pandemic, were deeply shaped by austerity, financial precarity, and justifiable anxieties about what kind of future is possible. Not only is it possible that many students arrive to college already “dealing with life’s difficulties,” there’s no evidence that grading helps people learn how to manage these difficulties.

Thoughtful writers about pedagogy have shown the ways that traditional grading fails at fairly assessing work, motivating students, and promoting meaningful learning. David Gooblar and Alfie Kohn have noted that obsession with “standards,” grade inflation, and grades more broadly directs students’ attention toward external motivators, which research shows is antithetical to learning. John Warner, has written about the ways the stress of grades leaves undergraduates fearful and turned off of writing. Asao Inoue has written extensively about race bias in the way grades are distributed. Many have written about the ways working-class students’ grades are affected by needing to hold down a job during college. And now with so much discussion of inequality under the pandemic, discussions of grading during the crisis must acknowledge what we already know: that the traditional grading system undermines learning and reinforces inequity even in so-called normal times, and that alternatives are possible.

Not surprisingly, grade inflation, like most college-related topics obsessed about in large newspapers, is largely an elite-school phenomenon. The largest comprehensive study of US grades, by Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy, found that grade inflation is mainly prevalent in private schools, less prevalent at public universities, and barely existent at commuter colleges. To be clear: we believe grades are ineffective at measuring learning and achievement, and, as we discuss below, we advocate for alternatives to traditional forms of assessment and grading. But while our institutions still require traditional letter grades, we don’t think higher average grades are inherently a bad thing. It’s the fact that grades have risen more at elite schools than at commuter colleges that poses a concern.

There’s a stubborn underlying belief that the US’s sorting system for college admissions runs by meritocracy, that students at Harvard are inherently smarter and higher functioning than students elsewhere. But the evidence tells us that the real determining factor in the sorting system of college admissions is class. Rojstaczer and Healy also note evidence that “private schools in general educate students no better than public schools” and conclude that the main result of grade inflation is that “private schools are apparently conferring small but measurable advantages to their students,” including the tendency for higher grades to give those students a competitive edge in graduate school admissions, and advantage compounded by the fact that a student from an elite school will also be advantaged by the simple fact of having attended that school, regardless of their grades.

We are faculty members at a community college in Queens, NY where communities with large numbers of essential workers, many of them immigrants, were particularly devastated in the early months of the pandemic. We teach students who work in high-risk fields or have family members that do, many of whom care for multiple family members who are all quarantining together, often in small spaces. Many have lost jobs and are struggling to pay for rent and other necessities, especially after the expiration of extended unemployment benefits. There is also a looming eviction crisis in the city, as the local ban on evictions is set to lift October 1st and the protections offered by the federal ban are uncertain. And many students have no computer access, only a smartphone, or live in precarious circumstances where attending zoom classes and doing the reading present real challenges. Unsurprisingly, the continuation of online learning into the fall (or dubious and poorly orchestrated reopening plans) have led many working-class students to leave college altogether.

But another, more often overlooked challenge our students face is the ways they are assessed. While they are less likely to benefit from grade inflation, grades often have higher stakes for the students we teach than for those at more elite institutions.  When working class students fail a class, the fallout from loss of time and money is significant, even if the average cost of a college is relatively low. Students who fail or drop classes have lost time they could have been working to support themselves or family members. Failing classes can also mean they lose funding or financial aid and be forced to drop out or take higher interest loans. Additionally, for students on temporary visas, failing grades can mean being forced to leave the country, as recent laws make it easier to deport students on education visas. And working class students and those at community colleges rely more heavily on their grade point averages to gain opportunities for transfer, admission to graduate or professional school and the job market than those at elite schools who have access to networking.

There’s also an emotional component to all this, one that relates to graduation and completion rates. Studies show students of lower socioeconomic status have a “resilience gap” in college. Many low-income, first-generation, and students of color are vulnerable to doubting their ability. These students question their place at the university and show a tendency to take any negative feedback as a sign that they shouldn’t be there. We sometimes observe our students respond to grades as if they themselves are being graded as human beings. Our work with creative writing students in particular reveals how deeply many have internalized the idea that grades determine future possibility. Creative Writing students often articulate that a “B” indicates that the professor has determined that the student “will never make it as a writer.” Professors have too much power in this exchange. And we can change that. That is why we advocate for more holistic and supportive grading objectives.

Altering the way we grade and the power dynamic between professors and students is one way to address the well-documented mental health crisis faced among college students even before the pandmeic. As John Warner notes, students face “a culture of scarcity and precarity, where the road to success seems narrow, where they believe a single misstep can  ruin one’s chances, and even those who are relatively fortunate fear falling from favor.” Students are responding to an increasingly harsh world: the ever-shifting terrain of the gig economy and a culture that encourages status-seeking at the expense of intellectual curiosity. For many, structural racism, rampant ableism, and the xenophobia of the Trump era are added stressors on top of economic precarity. The moralistic tone of grade inflation critics like Lindsay, who worries students do not realize that “life is difficult” ignorant of the many difficulties many faced even before this current crisis.

Notably, the increase in average grades also began during a crisis. Rojstaczer and Healy point out that the first major shift upward in grades in the US occurred as a means of protecting students from the Vietnam-era draft, from which college students were, at one point, exempt so long as they remained full-time students with passing grades. They note this brought about a change in attitudes towards grades, with faculty moving toward a more sympathetic and holistic ethos. While many articles about grade inflation note this origin as a historical curiosity on their way to suggested remedies, we find it telling in a different way.  It is not a coincidence that this same period, during which, as in our own time, students and teachers alike rightly lost faith in authority figures, and began to question the functioning of our core institutions, saw a new flourishing of progressive pedagogy that combined more student-focused practices with a questioning of traditional modes of grading, as was done in our own field of English and writing instruction. It was during this time Peter Elbow, whose work continues to shape discussions about contract grading and other alternative methods, helped popularize these intertwined practices through his influential Writing without Teachers. At our own university, these years saw the struggle for open admissions, for Black and Puerto Rican studies, and the development of the SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge) program with pioneer work by Mina Shaughnessy as well as faculty that included Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde, to find innovative ways to serve the needs of Open Admissions students.

In March, when the covid crisis broke, students, some faculty, and even administrators were suddenly advocating that we rethink how we grade. Many private universities immediately moved to pass/fail grading for all, while places like City University of New York, where we teach, were among the last to decide in the nation. After much deliberation, CUNY offered a credit/no credit option in the Spring of 2020, but students had to actively request it and many reported being told that choosing this option would hurt them. While there are many possible reasons for this, we think the reasons are not as important as the effects--that once again, our students, who already have extra burdens and greater needs, were given, during a pandemic, less trust, less time, and additional obstacles to accessing the more flexible grading systems of the elite.

As of fall 2020, even though we are still 100% online, CUNY has already decided to remove the credit/no credit option. Meanwhile, little about the level of crisis has improved. In fact it has worsened: our nation’s response to covid has exposed deep failures of the state; police, ICE and Border Patrol have increased surveillance and violence in our communities; we’ve seen a year of record-breaking wildfires around the globe. It seems like a time to be more forgiving and supportive with each other, to emphasize the good in each other and try to build on everyone’s best. Traditional grading does not do any of that. And yet, big changes to grading are possible. If we can change the way we grade during the pandemic, why can’t we change it permanently?

In Anti-Racist Writing Assessment Ecologies, Asao Inoue points out that in most learning situations, one is not given a letter grade. Whether it’s getting a belt promotion in Tae Kwon Do, receiving certification in Yoga Teacher Training, becoming a chef, or earning a promotion, there are the equivalents of things like study, homework, special readings, and performance evaluations, but never letter grades. Mark Oppenheimer notes that many graduate programs have already done away with grades, as have some other institutions. However, “they are rarified, expensive places, such as St. Ann’s, a private school in Brooklyn; Hampshire College; and Yale School of Medicine.” As community college faculty, we don’t think that these alternatives should be yet another perk for the rich.

As long as our institutions require grades, we have options. Narrative evaluation, contract grading, and ungrading have been shown to increase student motivation, engagement, and learning. These methods encourage students toward process-oriented engagement and improvement, which lead to more learning and more enjoyment. They also mitigate conflicts between students and professors over grades, the focus of much hand-wringing in the popular writing about grade inflation. They can also lessen some of the biases based on class, race, and nationality, that are likely to shape traditional grading.

Grading contracts, which we use, begin by meeting students where they are at, then proceed by looking at things like what kind of effort was put in, whether the student gained any insight from the work, and how much growth there has been from assignment to assignment. Rather than the top-down judgement of traditional grading, contracts create a feedback system that encourages students to recognize and value what they have to offer at a given moment, and build on that, while beginning work on what needs work, but above all maintaining the view that learning is a lifelong process. Critics worry because there is evidence that contract grading slightly raises overall grades. Traditionalists worry that changes to grading will lower “standards.” We argue instead that not only do community college students deserve the same slightly higher grades that students at elite colleges — who are more likely to be wealthy and-or white — have been getting, but also that it is time to let go of the false premise that grades uphold “standards’ and “rigor” and think instead about what actually creates a more engaging learning experience.

As we write this, we don’t know when we will be able to see our students, or each other, in person. We are teaching virtually again now, and it seems likely we will do so again this spring. We don’t know how these crises will continue to reshape teaching and learning. It is possible many students, frustrated or shaken by their experiences during the crisis, may leave school; it is also possible that our enrollment will increase as it has during previous recessions, making the fight against austerity and cuts to public education all the more important. This also seems like the perfect opportunity to check our beliefs about grading and revise ineffective grading practices.

The events of this year have undeniably caused extensive psychological distress to students and faculty alike. Many of us may be questioning the place of our work in meeting students’ actual needs. And we should question what and how we teach in a world where political upheaval, ecological collapse, and pandemic seem likely to be the new normal. While much may feel beyond our control, one action we can immediately take is to move away from grading systems that ignore this reality, impede meaningful learning, and exacerbate inequality. We should instead move towards process-oriented feedback systems that operate through encouragement, support, and acknowledgment of work and effort. At the university level, we always have choices about how to approach our roles as educators. This is in our power, and we should embrace these changes, not only during moments of crisis, but for the long haul.