Rethinking deadline-based-learning in the pandemic

By David Nurenberg

A student turns in a paper two weeks late—do you accept it? A student fails a major test—do you let her re-take it?  Do you deduct points? Are there a certain number of “chances,” but then no more?

Do our answers to any of these questions change amidst a pandemic?

Balancing the desire to give students every chance to succeed against providing the stability and accountability of consequences has always been a challenge. But since the emergence of COVID-19, medical and economic crises, lack of privacy or reliable workspace, technology problems and the intensified anxiety from all of this has made learning on a deadline even more difficult for so many students. Unsurprisingly, failing grades nationwide have skyrocketed, with some districts seeing as many as half of all their students earning Fs for the first semester of the 2020-21 school year.

Some schools have responded by making all deadlines flexible, and/or by replacing failing grades entirely with “incompletes.” Such policies can give students the time they need to make a comeback, but also ask teachers to create additional accounting mechanisms for students’ makeup progress, and to keep re-teaching material to some students while simultaneously moving on with the rest of the class, at a time when their own resources have been stretched to the breaking point. For a student, a message of “it’s never too late” can be of comfort, or it can raise additional anxiety, especially if the deadline becomes entirely open-ended: “Oh, no, it’s never over, I can’t just take the F and move on.” Some students need hard deadlines in order to produce work; others wilt and give up in the face of an absolute “act now or forever hold your peace.” It is a challenge to create policies, in a classroom or across a district, that address these divergent student needs while also maintaining some sense of equity. Then there are still statewide accountability measures to face; some states have suspended their high stakes testing of students and schools, but others are still debating it.

Once again, COVID-19 has highlighted and exacerbated an issue that schools have always struggled with. In this case, it’s how to balance two often-contradictory missions: teaching students and ranking students, as represented by two parallel processes, assessment and grading. While sometimes convergent and often falsely conflated, assessment and grading are not the same thing, as I describe in what has become the single most-downloaded episode of my podcast. Assessment is the act of measuring the progress of student learning, while grading involves assigning a value judgement to that progress. Used as assessments, tools like quizzes, tests and projects are designed to reveal what skills and knowledge students have mastered, and to what extent. This data is then used to inform further teaching. In what is called Competency Based Assessment (CBA), teachers afford students every opportunity to go back and re-learn what they missed until they eventually are “proficient”—that was the goal behind the standards-based revolution of 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act.

The problem is, CBA is still not how most schools operate. Quizzes and tests are also used to grade: to declare that a student’s learning progress at a given point earns them an A, B, C, D or F, to be entered in a gradebook to determine their class rank, leveled placement, honor roll privileges, college admission and a host of other benefits and consequences. Ranking need not induce shame, but it most certainly does when there is no opportunity to go back and re-learn. Students take an end-of-unit-test, then move on to the next topic, or from fifth grade to sixth grade, so long as they’ve scored a certain minimum amount (I say “scored,” rather than learned, as classroom grades usually reflect not only learning progress but also things like attendance, behavior, timeliness and the ever-nebulously-defined “effort”).

Permitting revision and re-learning disrupts this conveyor-belt process; the structure of schools isn’t set up for it, and in fact conspires against it. The unshakeable mandate to keep all students on the same schedule, or in the same classroom as their agemates, forecloses many opportunities for additional learning. Even the culture of teacher evaluation dissuades it: from an assessment point of view, every student in a class earning an A on the exam demonstrates the teacher has been successful. But from a grading point of view, that same result indicates the teacher has performed poorly — she’s made the test too easy, because we expect a nice bell curve with grades. For grades to be meaningful at all, we require a certain number of students to fail to learn on schedule. Otherwise, we say we can’t rank them, and we decry “grade inflation.” If everyone earns an A, what’s an A “worth”?

Now, with COVID, we are also starting to ask, what’s an F worth? Keeping to the conveyor-belt model of instruction, prioritizing putting a scheduled evaluative stamp on learning above actually making learning happen, looks even crueler and more nonsensical when students and teachers alike are working in the pandemic-plagued, internet-mediated ashes of a school system. Today’s times are more suited to a Competency Based approach, with its opportunities for revisions and individualized learning schedules, but that approach cannot be simply overlaid upon a system that still insists on ranking students based upon what they have learned by arbitrary and universal deadlines. Maybe schools could “get by” privileging sprinters over marathon runners before COVID, but now that the pandemic has gouged potholes in even the 100 meter dash track, we really need some new rules for this sport.

Technology and asynchronous learning experiences enable us to break out of this system; remote and hybrid education have birthed tools that make Competency Based learning more feasible. For example, as an ELA teacher, I use, which lets me keep track in realtime of individual students’ progress in various writing skills, and automatically provides them with tailored lessons and assessments geared to their precise needs. They can go back and revise as often as needed and not have to worry about class moving on without them, because “class” is no longer a singular entity—kids are present and remote and here and there and everywhere. While there are big expensive packages like Creatrix Campus and Blackbaud out there, even humble Google Classroom or Schoology can be used to create asynchronous content and assessments  tailored to students’ separate needs.

There are so many lost aspects of schooling that we worry will never come back after COVID-19, but we have an opportunity to also place the harmful conveyor-belt, one-size-fits-all-deadline approach to learning on that list. Let’s seize it.


David Nurenberg, PhD is an associate professor at Lesley University’s Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, MA. He taught high school ELA for 20 years, and now trains teachers and consults for schools in the Boston area. David is also the host of the progressive-education podcast Ed Infinitum. His latest book, What Does Injustice Have to Do with Me?, was published by Rowman and Littlefield this year.

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