How Do We Grade During the Shutdown? “Do No Harm” is the Answer.

Kurt Hatch
Apr 17, 2020

Grading blog

Note: We've been blown away by the response to this blog post. It's challenged thinking and caused great discussions all across the state. Since the time of this post, OSPI released their grading guidance document. AWSP supports the guidance from OSPI and the workgroup (which three of our associate directors served on). For our latest thoughts on grading, read this post.

If we are assigning grades right now, what we are grading is PRIVILEGE. Without the equalizing force of the school building and its services, limited as they are, we are grading on access to technology, wifi, food, housing, security, and ableism.   ~Sim Kern.

You may have seen this quote in the Twittersphere. It’s true and timely. You might also be aware that grades have long been a function of privilege-based meritocracy. Our educational system struggles to avoid layering privilege upon privilege, often measuring punctuality and compliance rather than discernment, critical analysis and habits of mind.

Today, in our earnest search for solutions to address grading during the COVID-19 health crisis, this long list of well-intended ideas that have surfaced unfortunately falls outside principles of equity, will expand opportunity gaps and lacks relevancy in a time of pandemic:

  • Continue A-F grading
  • Use weighted grading
  • A/B/Credit
  • A/Incomplete
  • A/B/Incomplete
  • A/B/C/Pass/No Credit
  • Credit/No credit
  • Pass/Fail
  • Pass/No Pass
  • Pass/Incomplete
  • Giving a certain percentage of points for minimal completion and compliance.
  • Ensuring no grades will be lowered, but not providing viable and equitable opportunities for all students to raise their grades.
  • Allowing only students with a “B” an opportunity to improve their grade to an “A” (students with grades below a “B” will Pass/Fail).
  • Allow all students to improve their grades (presuming they have access and the means).

These ideas have been articulated by well-meaning, thoughtful educational leaders from across the state. They represent versions of what we’re accustomed to. However, unprecedented times require unprecedented solutions and the accompanying freedom to solve problems in unorthodox ways. This is not business as usual and we should not act as though it is. At a time when our system-wide instructional capacity has been severely hindered, our equity-centered mission should ensure, first and foremost, all decisions do no harm. We must adhere to an educational version of the Hippocratic Oath.

Let’s do no harm while we continue to arrange remote “instruction”, provide meals, support child-care and relentlessly pursue relationships and connections with all students and families. We can maintain rigor and increase engagement with relevant, motivating content, focused, meaningful feedback and teacher-student connections. And, perhaps during this time and with creativity, we may find our newfound solutions for grades lend way to addressing the deep-seated inequities of our school system.

And as to the immediate question of, “What should we do about ‘grading’ between the time schools were shut down and the end of the school year?” Well, I recently encountered an intriguing solution. It is straightforward, equitable, rather elegant and supports learning across the entire system.  Most importantly, it does no harm.

The solution being offered by Milken Award winning educator, Dr. Manuel Rustin, as articulated in a recent essay, is…wait for it…Give Them All A’s.


Before you diss and dismiss, take five minutes to read his essay.  It is quite compelling.  As you read, breathe deeply and let the logic and compassion wash over you.  Consider how it makes sense for students and families.  What are the downsides? Are there any? What questions might the public need us to answer? How might we muster the collective agency and political will to shift the status quo in this way? Would it really be all that difficult? Might the timing of such an idea be perfect for this moment?


I was skeptical when I first heard Dr. Rustin’s idea. "Isn’t it just giving everyone a participation ribbon?" Well - after a second read - not really…no. Not anymore than the federal government providing Economic Impact Checks, as Dr. Rustin points out, to keep things moving forward and give grace and space to students, while trying to do no harm


Prior to reading Dr. Rustin’s essay, my ideas were clearly situated within a pre-COVID-19 context. However, when juxtaposed against all other ideas listed above and filtered through the lens of an educational Hippocratic Oath, it became very compelling, particularly since there is precedence for putting it into action.

On April 15, Alison Collins, Commissioner of the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education tweeted the following:

The SF Board of Education directed staff to present a plan to give all our students A’s. No incompletes. Just A’s. This decision was made with full support of teachers and other education leaders. I’m so grateful to be part of this district.

Give them all A’s. Just A’s. An unprecedented solution for an unprecedented time that supports communities exactly where they are…where we all are. Simple, logical, humane, equitable and fair. An action-oriented solution that presumes the positive, supports learning, benefits all students, families and teachers and, most importantly, does no harm.

If you have questions or would like to engage in a conversation about these ideas, please email me.

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