Grading in a Crisis and Beyond

(This post is part of a series of articles, blog posts, and short briefs produced by EXPLO Elevate focused on supporting schools’ virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Moira Kelly | President, Exploration Learning
Sudipti Kumar | Director of Research, EXPLO Elevate


EXPLO Elevate recently hosted a webinar, Grading in a Crisis and Beyond, with Dr. Barry Fishman, professor at the University of Michigan and advisor to the Mastery Transcript Consortium. Following Dr. Fishman’s presentation, Dr. Fishman and Moira Kelly, President of Exploration Learning, engaged in a Q & A and conversation with school leaders and faculty from a wide range of independent schools. Here are some of the top takeaways from the session:

The Move from In-Person to Remote Learning

Before COVID-19, grades were a problem, but they are particularly troublesome now. Due to schools quickly moving from in-person instruction to online, very few made the leap to high quality online learning. This reality is not surprising, given that good online instruction requires a different type of design than in-person and most teachers did not receive adequate instruction in either online curricular design or teaching before being asked to make this shift.

Instead, schools jumped to remote learning: they took what they did in the classroom and tried to move those practices online. Some results have been better than others, but in general, it’s been somewhat chaotic and for many teachers, an exhausting exercise. Sheltering in place during a pandemic is by its very nature an anxiety-producing situation made more so by trying to do school from home.

Grades simply add more stress to an already stressful situation.

Schools should focus on care, learning, and equity

Grades Don’t Prioritize Care

Grades do not capture important information about learning. They can also contribute to mental health challenges, and because they are a blunt instrument, take all the variation between learners and reduce those differences to one grade or one G.P.A.

Grades Aren’t for Learning

Grades were developed for sorting and regulating for the next entity in line. Think about the role grades play for government regulators, licensing boards, and college admissions. Grades make the work of these groups easier, but grades are not good at promoting and assessing real and deep learning.

Grades Don’t Promote Equity

In this current environment, where schools have made a sudden shift to distance learning, it is important for schools to acknowledge that not all students do well in an online learning format. Further, not all students have a safe or productive place to learn, and the current content and pedagogy of teaching does not always translate well online.

If Not Grades, Then What Should We Do Right Now?

If schools are trying to maximize care, learning, and equity, then the best choice is for schools to opt for Satisfactory /No Record/Incomplete, for the following reasons:

  • It does not mean lowering standards
  • It relieves anxiety
  • It shows respect for changing conditions
  • It shows care for students and allows flexibility

Not quite as good, but still better than traditional grades, is the choice to go Satisfactory/No Record with “unmasking” (e.g. allowing a student to learn their grade if they want it after the academic year is completed). The problem here is that some students may unmask and others may not; in a situation in the future where students are applying to the same college or university or secondary school, there may be questions raised as to why some applicants from the same school unmasked and others did not.

The least preferable option would be to go Pass/Fail. While this is still better than a traditional grading policy with letter grades, allowing students to get an “F” rather than a “no credit” during this time is not nearly as equitable as Pass/No Record. There could be many reasons a student “failed”, including lack of access to resources, an inability to understand the content and no chance to work individually with the teacher, or other challenges in the home learning environment.

What Are the Concerns Around Alternative Grading Models and How Can They Be Addressed?


If we move away from traditional grades, we will be sending a signal to students, parents, and teachers that we are not serious about remote learning. It will be seen as a sign that we don’t have faith in the quality of our remote offerings.

How to Address?

This is where you need to reframe the conversation around the focus on learning, care, and equity. In these extraordinary times, now is your opportunity to clearly state these are your three highest concerns and the best way to deliver on those is to move away from traditional grading. Nothing is typical in this current state of schooling and the world, so this can become a leadership moment with your community. “Rigor” is often used, but ill-defined. There may be no better time to lance this ill-conceived learning descriptor.


If we go Pass/Fail, students won’t try very hard. They will do the minimum instead of pushing themselves.

How to Address?

Grades are in fact, completely about extrinsic motivation. Far too many students do work in exchange for grades rather than for the learning. If schools prioritize the extrinsic rewards that grades present, they are doing so at a loss to care and equity.

The problem is if you take your old grading system and simply reskin much of it with a new name – say Pass/Fail – then student motivation can be an issue. If you communicate that a “C” or above is now passing, you haven’t changed the paradigm.

The conversation between teachers and students needs to shift. Teachers need to clearly articulate what is important to learn – to know and be able to do – to pass.


Moving to an alternative system can hurt our students in the college admission process.

How to Address?

Everyone is struggling, including colleges. This is not a time to worry about how colleges will respond, given that around the world all students are facing the same exact ramifications and challenges. Notice how many colleges (including highly competitive institutions) are dropping standardized test requirements (SAT/ACT) for next year’s applicants, G.P.A. cut offs, and the like. This is an extraordinary moment in education and the old requirements are undergoing significant modification.


Some students will be harmed. For example, we have some students who had a rough start at our school, but have recently been improving their performance.

How to Address?

There are students who may have been on an upward grade trajectory, and that progress may not be effectively shown in a Credit/No Credit model. These cases can be worked on individually – including adding a note with the transcript and identifying this trend in recommendations and a letter with their secondary school or college applications.

Focus on what will work for the majority and address the other cases individually.


This change will be difficult to explain to families.

How to Address?

Schools should focus on articulating a climate of care and connection and that the shift in grading practice is in service to that.

It is critical to be clear about the changes and communicate proactively and regularly.

What About Faculty Already Struggling with Being Overwhelmed?

School leaders have named that faculty are overwhelmed right now, and moving to a new model can feel like one more “thing” on top of a very long list of new “things” during this time. Barry, Moira, and others noted that on the other side, there is a real opportunity that this crisis presents. Richard Boerner, Superintendent of Graded, The American School of Sao Paulo, noted that right now is the time for providing clear guidance to teachers without equivocating. Schools should give this direction certainly with recognition and compassion for everything teachers are going through, but they should also be clear on the fundamental shifts that can and should be made in service to students both now and in the long-term. There may be no better moment to make the changes that people have been talking about for a long time, calling on strong leaders to do what is right, not what is easy.

The Long View: What are the Opportunities this Time Has Presented?

Now is an opportunity for schools to move, in the long-term, towards mastery-based grading. Going back to normal isn’t likely for schools around the world, given that many of them are discussing the real potential for remote learning in the fall. As such, they can take this as a chance to re-center their school to focus on learning rather than on sorting and ranking. Mastery-based learning also allows students to take different pathways to the same outcomes, and thus maximizes equity. A competency-based approach is far more resilient and flexible an approach than traditional grades, which is a feature to consider given there is a high likelihood we may be facing uncertain conditions in this next school year and beyond.

Although this sudden shift to online learning has been difficult, there are positives that have emerged for schools as they have transitioned. Many faculty are having more one-on-one experiences with their students and are getting to know them better than they did in the classroom. Many students are building skills in independently managing their schedules and workloads. Others are working on online distributed team-based projects that are fostering the skills students will some day use in careers with global colleagues. Finally, some schools have started regularly surveying their faculty and students on what is going well (and not), and plan to continue this type of feedback gathering even when they return back to the building.

In Conclusion

Schools may have to contend with distance learning as part of an ongoing model, whether that be due to a new set of school shutdowns in the fall or because parents actually prefer it over the traditional classroom. Thus, the grading conversation is not a short-term one just for the next few months. It will continue to rear its head, and moving to an alternative assessment model will better allow a school to weather these shifts.