Fellow school principals, I’m calling on each of you to take action with grading reform in your schools. We need grades that matter, and we need them now!

Last month, I participated in a Zoom call with 50 fellow high school principals from my state as we all discussed the pros and cons of reverting to a pass/fail grading system to close out the 2019-20 school year.

The rationale for moving to such a system was born from the growing concern among educators that current grades and grading practices in remote learning systems are not an accurate measure of student learning and would likely penalize and hurt students. Interestingly, on the call that day there emerged two types of responses.

Principals working in schools that had already implemented a competency-based system (and thus, grading reforms) were, overall, not interested in making use of a pass/fail system. Principals in traditional schools, on the other hand, were very interested in such a policy. A pass/fail system is a fail for our kids, and a fail for our school. It serves to remind us that we don’t have a reliable grading system.

In a 2019 MultiBriefs Exclusive, I asked an ironic question: Do grades matter? My article was a follow up to a series of articles on grading reform released by ASCD where both teachers and researchers identified key considerations for assessments that "fairly gauge and report students' learning" and a model where the traditional A-F system is replaced by one that is a better indicator of student learning.

Grading reform is not new, and this is not the first time I have written about it. As a principal in a nationally recognized competency-based learning school, grading reform has been a big part of my work. In my 2018 Solution Tree book, “Breaking With Tradition: The Shift to Competency-Based Learning in PLCs at Work,” I outlined a grading system for the future that was based on the following principles:

  • Grading is an exercise in judging student evidence against clearly defined criteria on well-defined rubrics.
  • Grades represent to what extent and to what degree a student has learned something.
  • Grades are not time-bound: Students learn at different rates and the amount of time it takes a student to learn something does not influence or impact a grade.
  • Grades are based on what students learn, not what they earn. They are not based on points that can be “taken away” due to student misbehaviors (such as turning in an assignment “late”).
  • Achievement levels, and thus grading practices, must be fair, consistent, and calibrated across a school. Regardless of which educator is grading an assignment, the grade assigned should be consistent educator to educator.

A recent blog article from the Great Schools Partnership (GSP), entitled “Learning Is What Matters in the End,”provides a comprehensive look at this topic and a call to action for educational leaders. “

The pandemic sweeping our nation will produce grief and challenge for all of us. Those who were subject to the inequities of our systems are subjected all the more during such a crisis. Let’s make sure that our high school grading systems don’t increase these disparities—and indeed, fight back against them.”

GSP closed the article by offering these four resources for those looking for more information:

  1. Grading and Reporting for Educational Equity,” a tool from the Great Schools Partnership.
  2. Grading During Coronavirus: What’s the Right Call?” an article by Stephen Sawchuk for EdWeek.
  3. A New Normal: Assessment and Distance Learning,” a one-hour panel discussion by What’s the Story?” Vermont (facilitated by Champlain Valley Union High School coaches Stan Williams and Emily Rinkema; panelists: Tom Guskey, Ken O’Connor, Rick Wormeli, Lee Ann Jung).
  4. How Schools Are Rethinking Online Grading,” an article by Matt Zalaznick for District Administration.

As we face an uncertain future in schools as a result of the pandemic, we have to do better for our students. The time for grading reform is now.