More extra credit? Schools are rethinking approaches to grades


To curb an alarming increase in the number of students failing at the height of the pandemic, school districts across the United States showed leniency in accepting late work and awarding grades.

As the coronavirus crisis subsides, some are sticking with it or taking similar approaches — not because of the pandemic, but often because of what it has revealed about how students are being penalized for challenges such as a lack of support at home, work obligations, or poor internet access.

During distance learning, Brandy Snyder, a theater teacher at Las Cruces High School in New Mexico, once saw a student on Zoom sitting next to customers at the fast food restaurant where he worked. He was afraid of losing presence points. According to the grading scale now authorized by the school, an absence does not result in a lower grade if a student can ultimately prove that they have learned the material.

“I’m just freaking out that more teachers, it hasn’t opened their eyes more,” said Snyder, who is one of the few teachers at the school to use the new scale. “I’m beyond blown away that they’re still very goalkeepers. Like, ‘No, they really need to be in my class.’ There are other things going on.

For years, proponents have advanced the concept of “fair grading,” arguing that grades should reflect students‘ mastery of course material, not assignments, behavior, or extra credits. A growing number of schools are now increasingly concerned with removing bias from grading systems following lessons learned from the pandemic and the nation’s recognition of racial injustice.

From California to Virginia, schools have experimented with removing zero-to-100-point scales and other strategies to prevent missed assignments from drastically lowering overall grades. Others allow students to retake tests and submit work late. Additional credit assignments that may favor students with more advantages also come under scrutiny.

Some teachers have pushed back, arguing the changes amount to lowering expectations.

In San Diego, a teachers’ union filed a grievance last year when the district launched plans to introduce fair grading. Julia Knoff, a government and economics teacher, said she and her colleagues feared they would have less autonomy and more work on tasks such as rewriting tests for retakes.

The union eventually reached an agreement with the district guaranteeing teachers’ discretion on issues such as how overdue assignments can be submitted and how many times they can be redone. Knoff, who is also a union representative, took the training, although she personally thinks the new approach will do little to prepare students for real-world responsibilities.

“I have a job and I have a boss and requirements,” Knoff said.

One of Snyder’s students, Helene Trujillo, said the flexible deadlines helped her feel less “suffocated.” Some days she came home from work at a Mexican restaurant after 10 p.m. and did her homework until 2 a.m. Then she should log in to school by 8:30 a.m.

“I think it would have been a lot easier to juggle all of this if the deadlines weren’t so pressing,” said Trujillo, a senior. Second, students are “not worried about the grade, and it’s really about what you want to learn, and I think that’s very beneficial.”

According to Joe Feldman, a former teacher and administrator in Oakland, Calif., who wrote a book on the subject and trained teachers across the United States with his consulting group Crescendo Education.

This school year, Feldman and his cohorts offered workshops or coaching to 40 groups, including individual schools, districts and universities.

“I think we’ve learned a bit more about the grace we can give students and wouldn’t want their grade to reflect things beyond their control,” he said.

Nearly 20 teachers at Wilcox High School in Santa Clara, Calif., implemented fair grading this school year as part of a district-wide pilot program. District officials want the program to be universal within a decade. Rather than determining grades on a scale of zero to 100 points, teachers use a scale with fewer gradations like zero to four or 50% to 100%, with different intervals representing close to basic understanding of lessons, basic , competent or advanced.

A life sciences teacher at the school, Brad Beadell, has stopped giving zeros and deducting marks for late work. It also gives unlimited retakes for quizzes and tests. While he wanted to ensure fairness, he was also troubled by how students exploited some of the changes.

“The problem I’ve noticed with that is that the kids who come in to retake — especially the tests — are kids who, like, got a 98% score,” Beadell said. “Now I’ve disabled their ability to see their grade percentage because it bothers me that these kids are so determined to keep that A-plus.”

Shantha Smith, who began working at Crescendo with Feldman last year from her home in Ellicott City, Maryland, said as a black woman she’s seen the influence of prejudice in her more than 20 years. years as a teacher.

White teachers, she said, portrayed a black or brown student goofing off or speaking loudly as lazy or not fitting their model of good behavior. The rating will ultimately reflect that perception, Smith said.

“I hope this is just the beginning of people’s journey where they start to develop that core in empathy and compassion for what’s going on in people’s lives,” Smith said.

Janna Stone, who teaches English literature at Wilcox High, hopes for a change in students’ self-esteem. If they understand the lessons better, they may begin to see their own academic potential.

“That’s really the question I’m working on right now: is this system going to encourage more of my students to… consider themselves better students?” Pierre said. “Because I think a lot of between them defined themselves as Student D or Student F.”


Terry Tang is a member of the Associated Press’ Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at

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