What It Was Like Grading High School English During COVID-19

The grades are in, the paperwork signed, the end-of-year meetings attended, and the books and materials needed for summer work taken home. From behind masks at the school building, from a screen at home, I’ve (mostly) said goodbye to my colleagues and my students. It was a strange, confusing, maddening time, and revealed much about what are reasonable and unreasonable expectations of students and parents during a time of crisis.

The last day we were in the building all together was March 13th, a Thursday more than three months ago, the end of a four-day week. Our new superintendent was looking forward to the bonding and professional development of that Friday’s Superintendent Day. But it was cancelled and we were soon navigating an increasingly shifting and complicating line of procedures to follow and rules or guidelines to stick to with attention and alertness. The school building was closed, but we were still employed. It was like following trail posts on an expedition through a wilderness which had suddenly sprung up out of ground we thought was so cultivated and tame. Our sense of direction, muddled, and our patience and values, challenged.

Through it all, we yearned, yearned to return to a paideia-stasis, to imagine this was only a passing stretch of territory. Many of us aimed to “make up” for the lost time in our classrooms with packets and packets of mailed or delivered work, with Zoom meetings day-after-day near the same time they would’ve been in our classrooms, or with an undiminished rigor of instructional videos. The gauntlet brings me to last week, when the deadline for grades was Tuesday afternoon. As I sat through both Wednesday and Thursday until the early morning hours considering, re-considering, calculating, and re-calculating, the fate of some 70-odd 9th, 10th and 11th graders taking English at a rural, upstate, public high school in New York, I wondered: Who or what was this all really for? The reaper hanging his scythe over all of us.

But the grades needed to be, despite what current research shows about the relative value of grades for students. The letters and numbers given by teachers for student work are still so strongly believed in as a true measure of their ability, performance, or mastery by ourselves, parents, and the students. It is one of the more slippery subjects to take up with colleagues and administrators, as this belief is firmly rooted in them as well. As our 4th quarter finished up, marks were entered and students were not a-u-t-o-m-a-t-i-c-a-l-l-y passed into the next grade because of this crisis. They were assigned work, they were expected to do it, were given opportunities for help and support, and it was collected either digitally or from a bus route pick-up coordinated by our principal. For my part, I pulled way back on the final quarter. Only 2 works of literature were read and only 2-4 assignments were given, depending on the grade level. This amounted to roughly 20 minutes of work in English each day.

The results: A little more than half of my students returned some or all of their work, approximately 45 out of 70 students.

Our board of education had the final decision about grading, but after they were delivered a survey sent to all faculty by our supportive superintendent. The majority of us in the high school desired to give a Pass/Fail option based on their academic effort. After deliberating awhile (I watched this live on Zoom) they decided that numerical grades would still be given, and that evidence of learning would be the language employed to answer the question “How are we going to be able to equitably grade students on an individual basis?” Their reasoning was that students who do continue to work through the crisis ought to be rewarded for their efforts, since giving out P/F marks does not either positively or negatively affect the final grade. In this case of course, they meant positively for the students who they were advocating for with their decision – the students who could do the work, do it well, and turn it in, i.e., less than half our students.

But why less than half? Working in a rural school, many students had unreliable Internet connections and/or a scarcity of devices. The specific board response, that all students who show evidence of learning will receive a final grade that can be no lower than the average of their first three quarters, was seen as fair and just and the bottom line when it comes to how we as educators were to evaluate our students. But it did not factor in students, from my reckoning as much as 35-40%, who lack not only the above but possibly at-home support, a quiet place to work, or even the time. At least a dozen of my students were put to work, likely helping their families during the crisis to bring in funds.

Regarding equity, my mentor put it best that the evaluation of a student goes beyond the rubrics in a grading policy. Luckily, another option was given (which I took up) to give an incomplete to a student who turns in nothing, then an additional two-and-a-half weeks to contact their teacher and get work in. I’ve heard back from two parents thus far – and then the grades will finally be given. A measure of success? Perhaps. Or maybe a measure only of the belief that schooling is real in a strange and deadly global mist which is muddling all standards, educational or otherwise.