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School’s out
GRADING EQUALITY

Coronavirus lockdowns force educators to reconsider how they grade students

Annalisa Merelli
By Annalisa Merelli

Geopolitics reporter

If there is a lesson parents are learning around the world right now, as coronavirus keeps schools closed and children indoors, it’s that education isn’t just about learning or personal growth: It’s also an important social buffer.

Moms and dads have to manage restless kids all day long and essential workers have to find childcare solutions. Others, too, from workplaces to neighbors, are learning that schools are quite the Jenga brick upon which our society rests.

But there is another, less visible way in which schools play an important role: They are, to an extent, equalizers. Between offering meals and providing space for learning, schools help address some—though not all—of the inequities that students face at home. And so now that everyone is learning from home, the role those inequalities play in education are on full display.

Students (not to mention, teachers) can lack the sheer technology or connectivity to learn online, or face challenging home circumstances that make it hard for them to be focused on their education. The solutions have been far from optimal, for instance through lesson materials delivered to children’s homes (coronavirus safety protocol permitting), drives to get children laptops or tablets, or charitable efforts to guarantee internet connection.

These inequalities play an important role in the way students can learn remotely. But they also commonly play out in tests and grading. Neither are particularly good at accounting for a student’s life outside of school. It’s a long-standing problem that the coronavirus pandemic is forcing educators to now reconsider while everyone is on lockdown. Many of them hope this will lead to a lasting, positive change in the way schools assess their students.

A lost leveler

Since schools have been closed, and classes have moved online in many parts of the world, the inequalities students face have played a more significant role, leading to drastic changes in global education. The US will not enforce standardized testing this year, for instance, although only some universities have suspended their standardizes scores requirements for admission. And in the UK, schools won’t require students to take their annual high stakes tests—those tests that students must pass to get into university—relying instead on teachers to predict scores based on practice tests, with some moderation by a third party to minimize the risk of unfair judgement. In Italy, end of high-school exams will still be held, with some adaptations.

Outside of testing, schools everywhere are scrambling to address how the circumstances of individual students can impact their ability to learn remotely. The quality or existence of an internet connection, for instance, or the space available for children to focus, and the family environment, can all impact a student’s ability to keep up with schoolwork. Add to that the factors that are unique to this emergency, such as illness and death, loss of jobs and wages, daily health concerns, and the divide between students can grow significantly.

Rashid Iqbal, the chief executive of The Winch, a London-based community charity focused on the development of children and youth, told Quartz the students in his community are worried that the educational limitations they face during lockdown—arising from their socio-economic status—won’t be considered when schools decide how to assess their grades. While, for instance, some parents (typically from middle- and high-income families) have been reaching out to schools and teachers to advocate for a softening of requirements on students, parents of low-income kids typically lack the time or access to navigate the system, Iqbal said.

To address this problem, Iqbal says the evaluation of students and their performances should incorporate an “equality impact assessment,” similar to what some universities do by taking a contextualized approach to admission that accounts for the socio-economic context of the applicant, as well as the potential discrimination to which a certain background may be subjected.

Iqbal also sees this moment as an opportunity to unlearn a system that is overly focused on high stakes testing rather than the regular assessment done by teachers, who have a better understanding of a student’s circumstances. He suggests going back to a broader vision of education that, in the UK at least, was better defined by the old name of the Department of Education: the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

“It’s about how does education play a role in the broader scheme, and how can it play a part in the fight against inequality?” Iqbal told Quartz.

New priorities

Mark Barnes, the publisher of Times 10 Publications, which focuses on innovative education solutions, has long been critical of grading, and believes the current situation is only magnifying an existing problem. Because of their subjectivity, he says, grades shouldn’t be given so much importance when it comes to measuring a student’s achievements.

“Grades penalize all the kids all the time, it doesn’t matter if they are home or not,” he told Quartz. Given the inequities faced by students, Barnes says that learning assessment should be done only on lessons delivered prior to the lockdown, as it’s too difficult to grasp how much a student can engage in classes during remote schooling.

Others, however, still see a value in grading. Alex Bowers, a professor of education at Columbia University who took part in an important study on a century’s worth of grading, says teachers are actually on a whole very good at taking into account the specific circumstances of the students, their progress, and efforts. “Grades do measure academic knowledge, but that’s only 25% of what a grade is,” Bowers told Quartz. “The other part of the grade is this engaged participation.”

Thomas Guskey, a researcher in education at the University of Louisville and a leading expert in student assessment, says that the problem of unequal access in education during this emergency has been a topic of debate among educators in the US, and elsewhere. The issue isn’t just that of assessing learning fairly, but of finding ways to address the various setbacks that students are bound to experience.

While there is no tested recipe for fair ways to handle student evaluation in a pandemic, Guskey suggests shifting the purpose of grading from an assessment of the student’s achieved skills and knowledge to a way for teachers to collect information about the issues that may have come up during this time for students.

An opportunity for change

While the current situation has exacerbated the impact that inequality can have on the ability to assess students fairly, it has also highlighted existing issues. In some ways, it presents an opportunity to change long-established patterns that many experts believe fail to benefit either students or schools.

“Too often when we think about education we think about it in terms of the time spent at different levels,” Guskey told Quartz. “It’s a time based system, versus a learning based system.” An alternative would be having goals that student can progress towards at different rates—a structure more flexible when it comes to needs, which would therefore become easier to adapt in a situation like the one students are experiencing now.

“We do have an opportunity to restructure how we educate kids,” Barnes said. “We’ve got to evolve past the model that we’ve had for centuries. It’s an archaic model.”

In the same way, the pandemic presents an opportunity to rethink the role of standardized testing, which many educators agree isn’t an effective way to measure a student’s overall achievements. “In the United States we know that standardized test scores are a very good assessment of socio-economic status,” Bowers said. “And in many ways they are not as fair as some may want, and they are not as objective as some may want.”

Emma Garcia, a researcher in education policy a the Economic Policy Institute, agrees that this is an opportunity for the a decade-long movement to modify standardized testing in a way that considers so-called “whole-person” assessment,” which includes social and emotional skills, as well as socio-economic contexts.

Rather than assessing student’s outcomes, Garcia says, the focus should be on their effort and learning, regardless of their output. This way, grading becomes primarily a way to collect information on the needs students will have once they are able to go back to school.

This would be closer to the type of assessment that certain countries, notably Finland—which leads the world in education efficiency—have been following. “In Finland the grading is not based solely on testing, the assessment is a broader process including multiple ways of demonstrating competence,” Erja Vitikka, a counselor at the Finnish National Agency for Education, told Quartz.

The current emergency presents additional relevant factors to consider. “In this context, the teacher must take into account the pupils’ different ways of learning and working and to ensure that there are no obstacles to demonstrating progress and achievement,” Vitikka said.

Reassuringly, experts seem cautiously optimistic that students will be able to get back on track and that this whole experience will result in a better understanding of ways in which schools can be more effective, and more fair. “It’s a grand experiment and we don’t know how it will turn out,” Bowers said. But the hard work of educators, coupled with a greater awareness of the key role of schools in communities that has been brought on by the pandemic, could pay off in the end. “Teachers are great innovators,” he said.

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