One of the most profound changes that schools made during the pandemic was in an area that has long seen its share of controversy: the assigning of grades. Schools and districts throughout the country were compelled to make radical pivots in measuring, calculating, and reporting student achievement. Some districts enacted broad policies in which no student could fail; in others, policies were more granular, such as not deducting points from a grade if students were unable to join the class virtually or if work was submitted late. These changes caused reactions that varied from relief and appreciation to skepticism and resentment, but this was unsurprising.

Grades provide power and legitimacy to schools’ teaching and learning. They are also the main criteria for so many major decisions that affect students’ lives—inside and outside school, and in the short and long term. Everyone has a stake in the integrity of grading.

Shining a Light on Grading

Examining and changing our grading practices has been long overdue. Grading in the United States has remained essentially intact since the Industrial Revolution, even though many common grading practices contradict contemporary research on motivation, adolescent development, effective communication, and feedback, and they even violate sound mathematics principles. Many schools changed century-old grading practices because the pandemic shone a bright light on how many of those common practices were not only ineffective and inaccurate, but often undermined our best teaching and harmed our students. For example:

  1. Grade penalties related to deadlines. During the pandemic, we saw how the traditional practice of subtracting points to stop undesirable behaviors (e.g., subtracting five points for each day an assignment is late) was futile and tone-deaf when a student’s parent was in the hospital with COVID-19, or a student had to work to ensure the electric bill was paid. Our experiences confirmed research since the 1970s: Compared to intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation pales in influence. We also noticed that deadlines often discouraged students from completing work in the first place (“If I’m going to lose points for turning in something late, what’s the point of doing it?”). In fact, we saw that when we allowed students to submit assignments after a deadline without deducting points, the quality of those assignments reflected, and allowed for, increased learning. We realized that whether students learned mattered much more than when they learned.
  2. Including homework performance in a grade. When all assignments had to be completed remotely, we witnessed how some students had multiple resources and supports to successfully complete assignments—they could access a quiet, well-lit place to work alone, or had parents with more formal education who were available to help them. Other students, however, had fewer supports—they lived in a smaller living space or had to care for younger siblings or older family members that left them with less cognitive capacity or time to learn. Students across the socioeconomic spectrum had parents unavailable to support them (whether they were doctors working multiple shifts or were recently unemployed and patched together part-time work to make ends meet). We realized a student’s grade should not reflect their environment and circumstances over which they had no control. What mattered was whether students had learned, not whether they had completed every day-to-day assignment.
  3. “Participation” points in a grade. Without students in classrooms, we tried to translate our traditional approach to “participation” that awarded points for coming to class prepared or for asking questions in a discussion. During remote learning, we offered points to students for turning on their computer camera or for responding to a prompt in the chat. We immediately encountered flaws: Some students had consistent internet access, while others’ access was intermittent. Through our computer we could see (and hear) students’ home circumstances, a witnessing that at times seemed invasive and made many teachers and students uncomfortable. We recognized that grading “participation” often was not an evaluation of learning, but instead a tool for classroom management. Plus, we were often grading specific behaviors that reflected narrow ways of learning. For example, just because a student doesn’t have their camera on or isn’t contributing to class discussions doesn’t mean they’re not listening, engaged, or learning. The only valid way to know whether a student is learning is to evaluate their learning, not to assess subjectively defined and interpreted indicators of potential learning. We realized that what mattered was whether students learned, not whether they followed our directions or comported with a specific archetype of how students should behave.
  4. Omnibus grading. Traditionally, we had included in the grade all aspects of a student’s time in our class—their homework, classwork, participation, tests, quizzes, extra credit, effort, etc. The pandemic prohibited this practice because our perspective became much more limited. Students were reduced to images on a screen, and we connected with them through chats and emails. We had to prioritize the data that really mattered: what a student had learned. We realized that our prior approach to grading in which we included so many diverse and unrelated components in a grade inadvertently hid what was most critical for our grades to communicate—proficiency with course content. We no longer were satisfied with a “B” describing both a student who was weak on content but was a kind, thoughtful, collaborator, as well as a “B” also describing the student who deeply understood the content but was unorganized and seemed unmotivated. We realized that when we try to make a grade communicate everything about a student, it doesn’t communicate anything; what matters is that the grade clearly and accurately describes a student’s understanding of course content.

In sum, the pandemic opened our eyes to how many of our traditional grading practices were undermining our own teaching and were limiting student learning. By continuing to use traditional grading practices during the pandemic, we were unintentionally harming students across all races, backgrounds, and contexts who were struggling under the incalculable weight of the pandemic. However, these traditional grading practices have always harmed students whom our schools have historically underserved. Students who are Black and Latinx, from lower-income families, whose first language is not English, and who have special needs have always been punished by traditional grading practices. They have always been disproportionately harmed by grading practices that subjectively evaluate behavior and that reflect circumstances outside a student’s control.

These realizations open a gateway for grading that is more equitable—more accurate, bias-​resistant, and motivational. More equitable grading means that our grades more accurately describe our students’ understanding of course content, that our grades counteract institutional biases such as disparate environments and backgrounds, as well as prevent our implicit biases and assumptions from “infecting” our grades, and that our grades build students’ intrinsic motivation to learn. (For more on equitable grading, visit

Challenges and Opportunities

Now that we see the harm, how can school leaders resist the gravitational pull of pre-pandemic grading? Several challenges and opportunities await us as we extend more equitable grading beyond the pandemic.

One challenge is that in our urgency to improve grading practices, we might seek a quick solution through policy enactment. If we know, for example, that lowering grades for work submitted late is inequitable and ineffective, administrators might believe the best solution is to simply ban teachers from doing it. While this “top-down” approach may have been warranted during the crisis of the pandemic, it is an unnecessary encroachment on teachers’ professional judgment about one of their most important responsibilities. School leaders need to create professional learning opportunities that give teachers access to the research and possibilities of improved, more equitable grading through article or book studies, by encouraging them to prototype grading practices, and by facilitating their collection and sharing of classroom-based results. Rather than lead by decree, school leaders should provide a tailwind to teachers’ learning. Teachers’ own experiences with the benefits of equitable grading generate the strongest basis for policy development.

Another common challenge, particularly in our politically charged environment, is communicating to our school communities the longstanding unfairness in our traditional grading practices and the need for grading that is more equitable. The word “equity” can be misunderstood as a benefit targeted exclusively to students of color (and even as a punishment to white students), or as a softening of expectations and a lowering of academic rigor. In fact, equitable grading benefits all students, including those historically underserved, and increases academic expectations. No student benefits from teachers incorporating biases and judgments about student behaviors into grades. No student or family wants grades to incorporate so many aspects of student performance that the grade becomes misleading about what the student needs or has achieved. No student is well served when grading policies in a school vary from teacher to teacher such that a student’s grade depends on how their specific teacher grades, not on the student’s performance.

More equitable grading ultimately raises expectations for all students and makes classrooms more demanding. For example, no longer can a student succeed in a class just by raising their hand, arriving to class on time, earning extra credit, or completing homework (with or without assistance). With equitable grading, there is no alternative path to success other than to demonstrate learning. We must amplify the voices of our teachers and students who have experienced the successes of equitable grading. Teachers who use more equitable grading practices testify that although they had predicted that excluding student behavior from a grade, using a different scale than 0–100, or allowing retakes would lower expectations and decrease motivation, more equitable grading raised expectations for every student.

What’s more, students describe equitable grading as less stressful, more motivating, and more empowering because it helps them focus on learning rather than accumulating points. Equitable grading acknowledges that children are human beings whose brains are still developing and who have complex lives over which they have less-than-complete control. In contrast to traditional grading that includes everything a student does in the classroom, equitable grading—because it only describes a student’s understanding of course content—allows them to make mistakes on homework, to retake a failed test that may have been the morning after a late-night soccer tournament, and to not feel that every classroom is a performance space with constant evaluation.

A final challenge is that when important soft skills like punctuality, engagement, or collaboration aren’t awarded points, it can appear to some that those skills aren’t valued or that we don’t care about teaching them. For example, since a late assignment isn’t penalized in the grade, some might mistakenly conclude we don’t care about students learning to meet deadlines. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just because something isn’t included in the grade doesn’t mean that it isn’t valued and isn’t taught. In contrast to traditional grading in which meeting a deadline earns points, non-grade-based consequences or strategies that teach students to recognize the natural consequences of missing deadlines can help students learn how effective time management is a means to success—not a success in itself—thereby building internal motivation and the muscle of self-regulation. Equitable grading builds sustaining, internalized proficiencies in students rather than short-term compliance.

To adapt an idea from author Arundhati Roy, the pandemic brought the engine of education to a “juddering halt … temporarily perhaps, but at least long enough for us to examine its parts, make an assessment, and decide whether we want to help fix it, or look for a better engine.” We can’t unsee what the pandemic showed us about our common grading practices. We have the opportunity, license, and arguably the moral imperative, to resist reverting to pre-pandemic practices—to remember how traditional grading has harmed students for too long—and to build a better grading engine that is more accurate, bias-​resistant, and motivational.

Joe Feldman is the founder and CEO of Crescendo Education Group. A former teacher, principal, and district administrator, he is the author of Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms.


Roy, A. (2020, April 3). The pandemic is a portal. Financial Times.