Grading, COVID, and the End of the Year

Cheyenne Green Vowell
Published in
6 min readMay 20, 2021


Particularly, grading in the time of COVID-19.

The past year and a half in education have been insane. COVID threw us into a world of distance learning, remote teaching, and black Zoom screens. Many of us have never seen some of our students from this year. The pandemic upturned the entire landscape of education, and grading hasn’t caught up.

Failure Rates

Failure rates have been going up across the United States. States are trying to figure out what they are going to do to get these students “back on track”. There has been no instruction from the federal government. Various states are creating piecemeal policies. Students don’t know what is going on. Teachers don’t know what is going on.

Across the United States, students are suffering. In the Bay area, there has been a 50% increase in failing grades. In New Mexico, a school reported 79% of students failing. The failure rate in Houston is 42%, in St. Paul, it’s 40%, in Kentucky it’s 65%. We see the data. We know what’s happening. What we haven’t done is figure out a clear way to fix it.

These failure rates are disproportionately affecting students of color, students at risk, low-income students, and English learners. These students, who would normally have extra programs available to help them, are being left behind. At the beginning of this school year, only 10% of principals indicated that their school was providing students with tutoring or supplemental instruction. Many of these students are having to take care of younger siblings and ensure their learning. Some had to take care of the housework. Some even had to get jobs to help their parents pay the bills. These kids have had much more going on than just school, and we should grade them with that in mind.

In my home state of North Carolina, the Department of Public Instruction has now issued recommendations on grading. These have not been approved yet, but here is a summary:

  • Elementary-aged students will not receive a grade at all and will be “graded” based on several factors, including their learning.
  • Students in middle school will receive either a pass or withdrawal grade.
  • High school students will be able to choose whether they want to be graded on a numerical scale or on a pass/fail basis. They can report their numeric grade as of March 13th, their improved grade throughout the semester, or a withdrawal grade.

While this helps to take into account student home issues, what does it mean for the students trying to get into college? How can we rectify the post-pandemic grading situation? The answers are not entirely clear.

Plans for After Graduation- Derailed?

In California, seven families are suing the state, alleging it failed to adequately educate low-income students. They note that teachers and students were not provided with needed devices, internet, training, or support. The state alleges it has taken all action to protect students learning and public health. While this case is moving through the court system, the problem isn’t California. This problem is facing students across the United States.

Across the board, GPAs and test scores of juniors and seniors have dropped amid the COVID pandemic. Among the largest groups harmed are minority, first-generation college, rural, and otherwise disadvantaged students. This compounds the problems these groups already faced in the American school system. 1 in 5 students in the highest-poverty schools report inadequate internet access. How are they supposed to do their work/homework without the internet? Teachers have not received guidance on how to help them. They are stuck with paper packets and no live instruction. Black, Latinx, and Native American students are disproportionately disciplined in schools, leading to suspension and no live instruction once again. Students, embarrassed at the shape of their homes, refuse to turn on cameras, lessening relationship-building. These issues have come together to hurt minority, at-risk, and ELL students’ chances of getting into college. Many 2021 seniors are nervous that pandemic-impacted grades will keep them out. Some fret that even if they do manage to get in, their college experience will be more virtual “learning”. Some are so far behind they believed they couldn’t catch up, and have dropped out. Many worry about what financial aid if any, they will get based on their pandemic grades.

Usually, the first step in the admissions process is making sure grades are up to par. If they aren’t, the application, marked as “likely not admitted”, will be discarded. Many colleges have been moving from this system to a “whole-person” admissions ideal. Here, the entire application is considered for more than grades, but extracurriculars, essays, and volunteer work. This system has never been needed more than now. The Washington state university system is integrating more flexibility into its admissions process. They agreed to work with students who saw negative academic results from the pandemic. They will take that into account at admissions time. The Ivy League system announced that personal circumstances impacting grades are being considered, as well as a student’s previous academic performance. Unfortunately, many of these institutions have not adjusted their financial aid requirements accordingly. While adjusting admissions is great, the financial aid needs adjusting as well.

What Can We Do?

Our options here are limited. We have the opportunity to completely re-imagine grading for inclusivity and equity. This could radically change student achievement! Yet, most school districts (read: boards) are stuck in the old method of grading. The “it worked for me, it’ll work for you” mindset. So what can we do?

We can grade kids pass/fail, as we’re doing in my home state. We can allow them to turn in missing work for months on end. We can extend dates for missing work past graduation (?!?!). These options, though not the best, have seen approval in many districts. The problem is, they aren’t working.

Yeah, they get kids to the next grade level. Are they ready for that grade? Not necessarily. Many teachers have reported that students are not prepared to take part in work at their grade level. They aren’t reading at grade level. Many are not reading at all, either due to frustration at not understanding or to pandemic-induced apathy. There isn’t much teachers can do to help at this point. On average, teachers can’t get in touch with one in five students. 40% report a need for strategies to help their students catch up to grade level. 80% are feeling burnout. The attrition rate is climbing. Only one-third of teachers are satisfied with decisions their administration and boards have made about virtual learning.

Teachers are struggling. Kids are struggling. Futures are in limbo. What can we do?

Teachers can search out strategies on their own or with their PLCs. They can check out teacher blogs, YouTube, outside professional development. They can get to know those students that still come in every day and try. They can do their best to help those that are struggling. Teachers and teacher groups can advocate for policy changes in their districts. They can push colleges to take the pandemic into account with admissions. At the end of the day, teachers can only do what they can do best. Help children. See them as more than a number in PowerSchool. Help them see themselves that way too.

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Cheyenne Green Vowell

BA History. MA Education-Secondary educator, education copywriter, financial feminist. Maverick Educational Copywriting.