Standard Grading in a Virtual Classroom

Parker’s New Grading System is a Return to the Old Grading System


On March 13, when Parker made the decision to close school due to COVID-19, there was an expectation that life would return to normal within a few weeks. It quickly became clear that the coronavirus would continue to impact all aspects of society, including schools. Even before Governor Pritzker issued Executive Order 2020-33 on April 30, 2020, ordering that schools remain closed through May 29, Parker had transitioned to a “non-negative” grading policy. Under this policy, grades earned during distance learning could not result in a lower grade than what a student had earned prior to the March 13 school closure. As Sven Carlsson, Parker’s Middle and Upper School Director of Studies explained in an April 3, 2020 email to all students, this policy was consistent with the Illinois State Board of Education’s (ISBE) recommendations of how to handle grades during emergency distance learning due to the coronavirus. 

With the 2020-21 school year in session and the entire Upper School learning remotely, Parker’s grading policy again requires attention. The emergency declarations and Executive Orders mandating distance learning, which lead to the ISBE recommendation for non-negative grading, have expired. The coronavirus pandemic, however, remains a significant factor in every aspect of life, including academics on every level. On July 23, 2020, ISBE issued guidance hinting at a non-negative grading policy, as it would cause “no harm” to students’ well-being. However, ISBE also recognized that “grading policies are ultimately a local decision…and that districts reconsider their regular grading policies and procedures and implement or modify them to best meet the needs of their students.” As a result, Parker was once again free to determine the best method of student evaluation. 

Student evaluation choices are not as simple as standard letter grades or pass/fail. When asked about grading models used by high schools, both public and private, Carlsson explained that there are four common high school practices: Standard-Letter Grades (SLG), Standards-based Grading (SBG), Narrative Exclusive, or Ranges. SLG, the practice used by Parker before the coronavirus, is when students earn a letter grade between A and F. Another grading mode familiar to Parker students is SBG. This practice is used in some Science classes when “the knowledge and skills to be gained in the course are divided into demonstrable standards and students receive feedback in order to help them master the standards,” Carlsson said. 

The third model, the Narrative Exclusive, removes all letter grades and replaces the A to F scale with descriptions of student work in predetermined categories to track student progress. As an example, Carlsson referenced The Mastery Consortium. The final grading model, Ranges, reduces the options from SLG to some smaller number. Ranges include, but likely are not limited to, Pass/Fail, High Pass/Pass/Fail, and A/B, C/D, and F. 

As a Progressive institution, grading and student evaluation is a frequent topic of discussion. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Parker was engaged with other institutions across the country to discuss whether an SBG model or some other combination of models, would be a more meaningful way to document student performance and mastery of topics and skills. Parker’s current SLG method, which Carlsson explained considers “individual circumstances and desire that students feel known and free to express the challenges, fears, and circumstances of their lives with students – and that they will be heard and that their words will have an impact – is very progressive.”

With the understanding of these grading models, and without a clear mandate from ISBE and numerous questions from the Parker community, Parker is returning to the SLG model with modification. In a recently published question-and-answer document available to all Parker families, it was stated that “grades will be recorded using standard letter grades and documenting student work and attendance as was done when we were fully in-person.” The document lists a variety of pandemic related issues (illness, grief, family reasons) that may impact student performance and detail the need for individualized considerations of student performance and concludes by stating that “the grading policy may be revised should there be a change to the duration of remote learning.” 

The decision to return to an SLG model was not based on a desire to move away from the realities of the pandemic. With six months of experience, both Parker students and educators are now prepared for the virtual school year. With this time and preparation, the implementation of pre-pandemic practices of more traditional grading policy becomes possible. 

“I’m not sure that it will last the entire year, obviously, but the grading policy for remote learning is that we will be using standard letter grades with the important qualification that we are sensitive to the challenges of remote learning for students. What is practically meant by ‘sensitivity’ is that, if issues related to technology/internet access or the pandemic inhibit a student’s ability to submit work,” Carlsson said, “adjustments will be made so that students are not punished in terms of their grade. This will most likely take the form of extensions or resubmissions, once the US Office is notified by a student or their family of the extenuating circumstance,” 

Parker is not alone in their decision to move away from non-negative grading and return to standard letter grading. Both Latin and Lab have also returned to standard grading, with the only exception being Lab’s opt-in pass/fail option. This move to standard grading also gives students and teachers a sense of understanding how to operate under the system used in in-person school. As Carlsson said, “since we’re using SLG, grading is essentially the same as when we’re in-person. The only difference in my mind is that we are attentive to the very real possibility that tech problems or other pandemic-related challenges may impact students.” 

Moving away from non-negative grading was not an easy decision, given the general recommendation from the ISBE. Carlsson believes Parker’s decision to move away from the non-negative grading system is the best option as both students and teachers have experience with remote learning.

“When they (the ISBE) recommended non-negative grading was largely tied to the intense disruption of going fully in-person to fully remote for the first time in human history, and, specifically, concerns about equity and student social-emotional well-being during something that had literally never happened before. All that to say, our current situation is different from the spring, in that this is now our second season of remote learning and we are starting the year remote (rather than abruptly switching in the spring). Given that we are much more experienced with life in a pandemic than we were in the spring, the thinking is that we are ready for a bit more of the familiar. That said, I don’t want to be seen as minimizing the pandemic or stating that its effects are over; the reason why we are doing SLG with sensitivity to COVID-related factors is that we know remote learning and the pandemic are still impacting people every day,” said Carlsson. 

Although the Administration recognizes issues with standard grading, both generally and in a virtual classroom, the familiarity of the practice is what ultimately led to the move away from non-negative and towards standard letter grades. When asked if he had any words of wisdom for students struggling to understand how they could succeed without non-negative grading in remote learning, Carlsson said, “I would just remind students that grades, and, more importantly, all the feedback that Parker teachers give you on a daily basis (oral/written/etc.), is designed to help you grow intellectually and as a human. Progressive Education is about skill and service– it is easy to lose sight of the ultimate aims of your education when we talk grades, so let me remind us all that the ultimate significance of a Parker education is found in your empathy, curiosity, and mastery of the fantastic content your teachers are curating for you.”

This new grading policy is met with mixed feelings from the Student Body. “Our grading system does not accurately reflect the fact that we are still in a pandemic and that we are all taking classes from our homes. This grading policy needs to be amended to reflect the incredibly difficult situation that we are in,” said freshman Benjamin Kagan. Sophomore Lucas Daskal has a different perspective on the new grading system. “I think this grading system is a good representation of Parker’s progressive mission and is head and shoulders above what was put into place last March,” Daskal said. 

As virtual learning is likely to continue in some form throughout the 2020-21 school year, grading at Parker has returned to its more familiar, and more intense, form.