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How to create a grading and assessment policy for distance learning

April 15, 2020

As schools transition to distance learning, administrators must decide how to assess and grade student performance. State guidance and some early examples suggest three approaches to the grading and assessment of distance learning:

  • Maintain traditional grading
  • Allow students to raise their grades, but otherwise freeze students’ grades as of the last day of in-person instruction
  • Use pass/no credit, pass/fail, or pass/incomplete instead of letter grades

EAB conducted interviews with independent schools and school districts across the country to learn how administrators and teachers developed plans for grading and assessing distance learning. When creating a grading and assessment policy, here are key lessons to keep in mind.

Only grade student performance on standards most essential to course content

To create lessons for a shortened instructional period, teachers must select only the standards most essential for students to demonstrate proficiency on overarching course objectives.

Most students experienced both a prolonged break from instruction as schools prepared distance learning and truncated daily schedules once instruction resumed remotely, ultimately shortening the length of the school year. Thus, teachers should expect to grade student performance on a narrower scope of course content. Teachers should re-write their course syllabi and lesson plans to focus on only foundational concepts—the concepts that are most important for students to understand to progress to future grades.

Substitute performance tasks for traditional assessments

To mitigate concerns around technological limitations and potential cheating in a remote environment, consider replacing end-of-unit assessments with performance tasks. Performance tasks reflect the foundational standards from the unit. These tasks require students to demonstrate their thought process as they solve problems or respond to prompts. For example, during a performance task in a chemistry course at one school district, the teacher asked students to write chemical formulas in real-time during a Google Hangout.

Performance tasks ensure that students do not cheat, and they also provide an opportunity for teachers to offer feedback on students’ thought processes, not just their answers. This allows teachers to guide students toward mastery of essential course concepts.

Consider deploying a hybrid grading approach to motivate students while preserving maximum flexibility

Teachers and administrators should create flexible grading policies—such as pass/fail grading in the case of illness in a student’s family, project-based learning instead of traditional exams, etc. These flexible policies minimize student stress and recognize disadvantages for at-risk student populations, such as those who qualify for special education and receive services hard to adapt to a remote environment.

However, grading policies must not only accommodate student who may be distressed or cannot access the services they need, but also must motivate students to complete their assignments. To do so, administrators and teachers can adopt practices from a range of different grading approaches.

For example, administrators at Lake Washington School District (WA) implemented pass/no credit grading for distance learning but hope to allow students opt out, and instead request that a letter grade appears on their transcript. Administrators believe that this hybrid between traditional grading and a pass/no credit policy will encourage high-achieving students to continue to set ambitious academic goals for themselves. Administrators also believe this approach will motivate students with room to raise their grades to engage in distance learning. At the same time, the policy protects students from earning a grade lower than they had on the last day of in-person instruction.

Provide remote feedback before grading student work

5 weeks

the trial period for distance learning at one district
the trial period for distance learning at one district

Even though students and their families may pressure schools and districts to immediately release a grading and assessment policy, administrators should spend sufficient time to carefully develop and refine new syllabi and assessments.

For example, at one school district that closed on March 12th, teachers will not transition to graded distance learning until April 20th. Administrators and teachers are using these five weeks to learn new digital platforms and distribute devices to any students who lack technological access. In the meantime, teachers are offering ungraded distance learning, during which they can practice providing feedback on student work, such as formative assessments.

Adapt existing grading policies to avoid starting from scratch

To create a comprehensive grading and assessment plan, ensure that the plan includes: the components of the curriculum that teachers should grade, the assessment instruments that teachers should use, and the format of students’ final grades. Start by reviewing the following examples, which provide options for each of these three components. Also, check out EAB’s Comparison of Distance Learning Plans for further examples of grading and assessment policies.

  • Graded Curricula: Teachers adopt the regular curriculum with some adjustments for the digital platform.
  • Assessment Instruments: Formative assessments and other graded coursework proceed as normal. Project-based units replace final exams.
  • Final Grades: Students receive grades on an A-F basis as normal.
  • Graded Curricula: Teachers narrow the scope of the curriculum to only the most essential course concepts.
  • Assessment Instruments: Teachers provide qualitative feedback—not grades—on formative assessments. Students complete graded performance tasks, instead of summative assessments.
  • Final Grades: If a student’s grade drops during distance learning due to their grades from performance tasks, the teachers override the grade book and revert to their grade from the last day of in-person instruction. If a student does not complete any performance tasks, in lieu of extenuating circumstances (e.g., they get sick or have limited technological access), teachers can assign an “incomplete” for the student’s grade.
  • Graded Curricula: Teachers narrow the scope of the curriculum to only the most essential course concepts. Teachers adapt graded work for a digital environment (e.g., create online discussion boards for students to assess students’ class participation).
  • Assessment Instruments: At the secondary level, teachers continue to grade formative assessments and other coursework using traditional letter grades. Teachers excuse incomplete assignments at their discretion. At the elementary level, instead of grades teachers denote which concepts they covered during distance learning.
  • Final Grades: At the secondary level, teachers transition all letter grades to either a “pass” or “no credit” at the end of the semester. This district is also considering an option in which secondary students could request a letter grade. Teachers do not assign grades at the elementary level.

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