This is my 20th year teaching full-time. I believe in high standards for all students. I do not give easy A’s. I fully comprehend the benefits of academic rigor — coupled with ample support for those students who need it — and have written about it.
But now, as the semester ends with school buildings closed, a pandemic that has disproportionately affected Black and brown Americans, and widespread grief and anger over racist violence, we need to reconsider how we evaluate academic performance. We need to consider compassionate grading at all levels of schooling.
Compassionate grading is not having low-expectations for academic performance; it is grading with reflection, flexibility, and grace during this challenging time. To that end, here’s what I hope my fellow educators will consider when issuing their final grades this semester — and moving forward:
1. Compassionate grading is not giving everyone an A.
As much as I love this idea, and I have seen calls for it, I do not see many folks getting behind it. Right now, I do not know why many of my students have gone missing since mid-March, but I trust that they are doing what they need to do to survive at this time, and that may not be community college coursework. Sadly, those students will fail my courses, even now, because I don’t have any work from them.
2. Re-evaluate how you calculate your final grade.
During a regular semester, each assignment is worth a percentage of the final grade. Typically, class participation is 10-20% of the grade, depending on the type of class. However when we moved to distance-learning in March, I took out class participation because we were no longer having class in real-time.
Eleven weeks into distance learning, though, I understand participation differently. Participation can mean emails, texts, Zoom office hours, individual meetings to ask questions, clarify understanding, or even just to reach out and check in. Many of my students have done this repeatedly and routinely during this semester. That’s part of the learning process, which is why I need to redesign my grade composition to reflect this and communicate this redesign to my students.
3. Consider your teaching.
Is your grading system fair, considering how your class went this semester while online? This semester has been very unsatisfying for me. I have worked harder than ever, but I have not reached students as successfully as I have in the past. In hindsight, my online teaching was OK, but I consider myself a more-than-OK professor. If you asked for a research paper and it is 40% of the grade, ask yourself — honestly — how well you taught the subject of that research paper online. If your answer is only, “I did an OK job,” then you should reconsider how you grade that paper or that paper’s percentage of the final grade. If teachers are not performing at 100% while online (and I know I am not), why are we expecting our students to?
4. Remember: All students will be behind next school year.
But students will be behind next fall if I pass them now, you may be saying to yourself. Guess what? Every student is going to be behind next fall. I have a daughter in seventh grade and a son in fifth grade in New York City public schools. Are they going to be as prepared for next year as they would have been in class with their teachers? No. But teachers and professors know what we are doing. We will meet the students where they’re at next fall. We will adapt our courses and offer support. Some students will have suffered academic lags that are greater, some lesser, but all students will be behind. As educators, we need to plan for this academic lag to avoid looking at students through a deficit-perspective.
5. Please consider the D — you won’t regret it.
Please keep in mind, a D is not an A: Right now, I am working with a few of my second-year students to achieve a D in my literature class and graduate from our community college. Giving someone a D who has done some work and demonstrated some proficiency is a legitimate grade. If a C is average work, a D signals below-average performance or completion of the course. A D also allows students to pass and move on.
You won’t regret giving a D and letting a student graduate. Let me tell you a story of my second year teaching: I was 28 years old and teaching AP English Literature and high school seniors for the first time. I had one student who did very little work because her dad was sick and died during the spring semester. I gave her opportunities to make up work, but she didn’t take them, so I failed her. I, single-handedly, kept that young woman from graduating high school the same semester her dad died. I thought I was holding her to high standards; I thought that was what good teachers did, but years later I regretted it. It haunted me. I found her on Facebook and apologized, and she was generous enough to offer forgiveness.
I do give Fs, but when I give them, I give them carefully and with a clear mind. I give them when there’s no other choice.
As this immensely challenging semester comes to a close, remember that we are all — students, educators, and parents — doing the best we can. I hope those who teach students of all ages and levels will grade with compassion and consideration. I will be trying to do the same.
Lori Ungemah, Ed.D., is an associate professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Guttman Community College, City University of New York.