Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

COVID-19 Diaries: Give Them All A's

April 8, 2020

1000w Manuel Rustin students Covid19 collage

By Dr. Manuel Rustin (CA ’11)

This essay was originally published on Medium.com. It is shared here with the author’s permission.


Among the litany of concerns and uncertainties we face as educators during this time of crisis, what to do about students’ grades need not be one of them. Give them all A’s.

Flexible, humanizing distance learning should of course continue. I’m doing all that I can to make sure my history students are still building their historical thinking skills and mastering the content. But no matter how this distance learning experience turns out, every school that regularly assigns letter grades to students should give them A’s when this academic year closes. That’s what my students will get.

It took me awhile to get here and I thank fellow educator and history teacher extraordinaire Leo Glazé for helping me see the equity and efficacy in giving all of our students A’s. I knew when I began this sudden challenge of distance learning that it’d be impossible to grade my students fairly. How could I really know whether everyone had the tools, space, time, and clarity of mind to engage in my classwork during a global pandemic?

I couldn’t fathom letting a student’s B become a D because they had to take on new responsibilities to help their household survive the crisis and therefore couldn’t check Google Classroom and do my beautifully formatted hyperdoc.

Manuel Rustin email

Some say that although students shouldn’t be penalized for not engaging in distance learning, those who do engage should be able improve their grade. But this approach is inherently inequitable—Student X with the physically and economically healthy home can boost their grades while Student Y with the whole world on their shoulders can’t.

How about Pass/Fail? Or maybe a No Grade? I once argued for those solutions, but they too are insufficient. Only A’s will do.

Apple A4

Why existing grading policies are ineffectual

Millions of students have suddenly been thrust into a distance learning experience that schools never prepared them for.

I’ll be honest—in my sixteen years of teaching I never taught students how to join a Zoom call. Or how to develop a suitable routine for effectively engaging in a fully-online assignment from their bedroom. Or how to take everything they’re accustomed to doing in-person inside of my classroom and suddenly do it on their own at home in the middle of a semester.

It’s Teaching 101—you don’t grade students on something that you haven’t even taught them.

Millions of teachers have suddenly been thrust into distance teaching—something they’re neither fully trained in nor certified for.

I have three degrees, several certificates, and sixteen years of teaching experience under my belt. Missing from that is any robust training in teaching from my living room. I am not qualified and I’m not the only one. Can I learn to do this? Yes. Is it fair to learn on-the-spot and simultaneously assign grades to my students during the process? No.

Students were not prepped to take your class online.

Maybe you’ve been using Google Classroom all year. Maybe you’ve always had students submit their work electronically. But where in your syllabus did it say that students would take your course from home? As the school year progressed, what verbal instructions and indications did you give students about finishing your class without your immediate in-person presence and support? Right.

Technology will not save us

The digital divide is perhaps the most visible inequity in this distance learning experiment and we’d have a problem even if every student had an internet-connected device. I work in a district that started distributing Chromebooks to every student in 2018. Hotspots? We got ’em. Devices and internet are not our particular challenge. My pandemic-teaching experience, however, reminds me that not every student has the privilege of sitting with their device and spending effective time on it. So many have had to become sudden babysitters for siblings whose schools closed. So many have had to become the errand-runners for family members with compromised immune systems. So many have had to find ways to help supplement a family member’s lost income. As helpful as these devices are, they won’t save us from the challenges of distance learning.

Clear and present real-life danger

As I write this there have been 3,011 confirmed coronavirus cases and 54 deaths in my county alone. Not all of our students will get sick or will have a sick family member, but some will. We will lose students and we will lose colleagues. No one knows where this pandemic will take us. Some shops are boarding up to prepare for looting while some folks go to the beach. We’re all over the place right now. Millions are feeling uneasy, stressed, and anxious. Are you such a pedagogical genius that your grading system successfully accounts for all of this uncertainty with certainty?

A Pass/Fail or No Grade is not enough

Trying to give individual letter grades during this period is clearly a losing game and it’s not enough to settle for a Pass/Fail or No Grade either. Such a system would only be fair if all schools agreed to it. A student at Independent High School who gets a B for history is advantaged over my student at Public High School who’s given a P. The only way that I myself can feel confident that my students won’t be academically disadvantaged as a result of this crisis is by me giving them all A’s.

And about that Pass/Fail: What in the world goes into a decision to fail a student right now?

“Manny had a 30% before school even closed!” So? Was it impossible for them to turn it around in March and achieve a passing grade by June? Are you that ineffective a teacher? If so, own it and state it publicly.

“But they didn’t do any of the distance-learning work!” Again, you can’t possibly know what a student’s pandemic experience is or will be. There’s a chance that an F is deserved. There’s also a chance that it’ll be a monumental slap in the face to them and their family who are battling odds too unimaginable to attend your little Google Meet appointment.

Giving every student an A neutralizes many complex inequities so that no student is harmed academically for being forced into this pandemic. It assures students that we see them, that we acknowledge they’ve experienced a school year unlike any school year in our lifetimes. And it’s just one semester—the system will not collapse because we gave everyone an A this one time.

If you’re concerned that grades and GPAs will be inflated and lose meaning, I remind you that grades are already inflated (and inequitably, I might add) and I ask—what meaning would a hugely inequitable and problematic pandemic semester of grades have, anyway?

As a nation we’ve offered trillions to Wall St. and $1,200 checks to individuals to help deal with this crisis. Are students not facing a crisis, too?

Give them their checks. And by checks, I mean A’s.

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Comments

  • I am sorry, but this is ridiculous. You say that a pass/fail system is only equitable if all schools go for it because the student who earns a B at a different high school will be at an advantage. But if you give your student, who may or may not have learned anything all semester long, an A then you are making the student receiving a B at a different high school the one at an academic disadvantage. This system is *also* only equitable if every school implements it, which seems a lot less likely than a P/NC system.

    I do not think any student should earn an "F" right now. But I also don't think that they should be automatically passed through onto the next class. I teach Algebra 1. If a student has not learned anything this semester, giving them a Pass is not a gift to them. When they hit Algebra 2, a required course for graduation, they aren't going to have a clue what's going on. Giving an NC and saying "hey, you should probably learn this material before going to other classes where it's presumed that you know it" isn't a bad thing.

    Posted by Bennet, 20/04/2020 11:57am (5 months ago)

  • As a teacher, I will ultimately agree that in the end, giving all students A's is the right thing. However, in the shorter term, I've found that accurate grading is an important tool to keep many students involved in our online efforts. I've taught math science, health and PE for 24 years, and the topic of grading has been controversial the entire time.

    I recently gave out a brief survey to 250 PE students to check on their physical activity routines and ask for a short term goal. I got 185 responses within the two-day due date. When I entered their 25 point grades without any penalty for non-responders, I got another 10 to respond. But then I decided to enter zeroes and mark the remainder as having missing assignments, we got another 40 kids to respond. In our district, zeroes and missing work designation automatically trigger messages to parents, which apparently is a very important motivator for about 20% of our middle schoolers.

    I will repeat this "experiment" today with our second Activity check-in. And I will eventually get rid of all the zeroes from all the no-responders.

    Posted by Christopher D Cunningham, 20/04/2020 11:13am (5 months ago)

  • Just a note to thank you for putting this out there. You have summed up several things I have wrestled with for years. Your insight has come just in time as we try to do what is best for kids. The fact is that pandemic or not, your points hit many hot buttons. Maybe these unprecedented times is what we, as a system, needed to getting us thinking a little harder. I came across your article in a link from a Washington state (AWSP.org) blog post.

    Posted by Joey Castilleja, 20/04/2020 10:39am (5 months ago)

  • Thank you for this perspective. As districts and states struggle with this topic, is great to have a grading framework proposal that is based on equity. I agree, in that this would not collapse the system and does neutralize complex inequities, digital and otherwise. Kurt Hatch (Kurt@AWSP.org) has the state of Washington buzzing about this possibility, as he based a blog on yours' and is a strong proponent in pursuing your counsel. I appreciate you providing an option that would have been, otherwise, not considered.

    Posted by Trevor Greene, 20/04/2020 9:24am (5 months ago)

  • Its a tough one. In the Bronx many of our students live in shelters and have other grave socioeconomic issues. About 45- 50 percent of my students have turned in work so far. Pass or fail also has it issues. Some of my students have done wonderful work, others no so much. Finally, there is the issue of special needs and ELA students who don't have the help that they might need.

    Posted by jack israel, 20/04/2020 6:25am (5 months ago)

  • Very interesting article, an idea I as a principal can get behind. An A.P. if mine shared this article with me, I think I'm gonna share it with many more. If for no other reason, to simply have additional dialogue.
    @Principal_Boyd

    Posted by Nathan Boyd, 19/04/2020 9:08am (6 months ago)

  • I thought this was a satire at first. Then I realized it was not. Everyone gets a trophy. Forget participation trophies, we are taking that notion up another notch. No one even has to show up, everyone is outstanding. Because Social Justice. The End. Unanimous support from the Politburo.

    This is what a dystopian nightmare looks like.

    I would vote for pass fail. But parents don’t get a vote in a bureaucracy.

    Posted by Curtis, 17/04/2020 8:55pm (6 months ago)

  • Well spoken, I agree. Coming from a school system that is on the bottom end of poverty and homes often infected with drug abuse and neglected children, our children need a boost emotionally. Give them all A’s they are learning real life struggles of survival that none of us adults have seen in our lifetime.

    Posted by KRW, 14/04/2020 6:26pm (6 months ago)

  • They should give student's all A's because we could be doing something more important that we cant get our work on time.

    Posted by Jose farias, 10/04/2020 8:03am (6 months ago)

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