What are grades for? And now, during a pandemic, what purpose do they serve? 

Should grades measure how many assignments students complete? Student work is affected by the relationships we form with them, but right now we are unable to form those relationships as we usually do. Depending on our district and the age of our students, they are learning remotely all or some of the time. Like most people — like many of us — students are feeling the effects of social isolation. All of these factors affect their engagement in attending school and completing assignments. 

Should grades show how well students have mastered the knowledge and skills of a course? Many of our students are facing huge challenges dealing with the impacts of COVID-19. Many have had family members infected with COVID and affected by the economic downturn. Many of us are facing some of these issues as well. These adverse conditions affect students’ ability to master course materials. 

Should grades motivate students? In particular, do Fs motivate them to improve? We know from research that failing grades do not motivate students. In fact, far from encouraging them, failing more than one core class as a freshman makes you more than three times less likely to graduate. And older students experience similar effects. 

Since we are not clear on the purpose of grades, since many students are struggling with the impacts of COVID-19, and since failing grades de-motivate students, we educators must grade with empathy.

Many districts have made it difficult for us to do so by requiring the A-F grading scale this year. Even so, it is our responsibility as educators to support students using the tools we have. In this time of unprecedented upheaval for students and their teachers, we owe it to our students not to penalize them. And as teachers, the ultimate choice about students’ grades is yours.

Let’s not assign failing grades during a pandemic. 

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