The Pandemic Rages On: Why Haven’t We Canceled Grades Yet?

The emotional cost of evaluating academic performance in a crisis is too great.

Posted Apr 28, 2020

 ©FatCamera/iStock
Source: ©FatCamera/iStock

As the pandemic continues to upend all of our lives, every aspect of life for students has changed, except one: grades. As an anxiety therapist working with anxious kids and their parents, I find it inexplicable that students are still being expected to perform and are being graded for their performance when we all know it is greatly compromised during this time of unprecedented tumult and uncertainty.

In the midst of the greatest upheaval and loss in our recent history, where so many are just clinging to the bottom rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy for basic security, students are expected to somehow reach higher—do good work, continue to develop and demonstrate mastery. The pressure is toxic. While the majority of schools are shuttered, and learning is online for the rest of the year, there has been no unified message from schools about canceling grades or going to universal pass/fail. It is definitely not reaching the front lines of kids’ anxiety. This omission speaks volumes.

I have long been concerned about the unrealistic pressure of grades and a detrimental future-orientation imposed on young people’s mental health, and the alarming rates of anxiety (over 30%) and depression (nearly 15%) in our youth, pre-pandemic. Suicide rates are tragically the second highest cause of death in young people, having soared 56% in 10 years. Numbers can never adequately reflect the pain of those shattered lives.

If kids weren’t all right before the pandemic, why would we expect them to do well now?

I wrote an article in March calling for universal pass/fail as hallowed establishments like Harvard Law had instituted it days before, and it has since been adopted to varying degrees in higher education. But secondary schools are not sounding the bell.

Some districts have made work optional and ungraded. Most have not. But without an organized message from the community of school administrators, teachers, mental health experts, policymakers, and parents, there has been no recognition of the stress that kids in elementary, middle, and high school are under.

The result?

The message blaring in the hallways of kids’ minds: Your grades still count. Do not ease up. Don’t just make yourself work— make yourself achieve—make it your “pandemic project,” no matter how bad you feel, no matter what chaos is going on around you. No matter if your internet works, or you’re worried about your grandmother, or you’re suddenly in charge of your little brother. Students are despairing as they hover over zoom classrooms, willing themselves to work, when every fiber of their being inside just can’t.

Grades should have been the first thing to go.

Decades of research have found a low positive relationship between grades or academic achievement and accomplishments later in life. A hundred years has passed since Yerkes Dodson research yielded the robust and enduring finding that stress interferes with learning and performance—especially with complex or unfamiliar tasks. We know that a grade now won’t signify in the least what it might have pre-pandemic.

With not even a discussion of flexing grades, kids are turning the blame on themselves. “I can’t do this anymore! What’s wrong with me?” is the all too familiar refrain. Kids are erroneously attributing their failure to push through on permanent traits—their own imagined inadequacy, weakness, or laziness—rather than on the specific and glaring crisis we are all in. This is literally the internal attributional architecture of depression laid out by Martin Seligman decades ago. Kids with learning differences not suited to online instruction may feel this most of all. Not to mention the inequity of poverty and the challenges that children who are homeless or in unstable living situations face. At the same time, exhausted parents are frantically trying to keep their kids from falling behind, feeling like failures too. Juggling multiple kids and their own jobs, these are not parents who intentionally chose to bring the magic of homeschooling to their kids. But students and their parents aren’t the problem, it’s the inflexibility of unrealistic expectations built for more stable times that are at fault.   

Teachers, caught in the middle, know it’s not possible to perform under these conditions, but need the policy-level endorsement from their administrators to follow their instincts and stop giving grades.

What do grades really reflect in a time of unprecedented global upheaval, stress, illness, loss, unemployment? The pandemic constitutes an adverse life event, a risk for trauma and psychopathology, for some students more than others. But ignoring one’s own distress is not how anyone builds resilience. Expecting that the capacity—or privilege—to shut out the world and compartmentalize is one size fits all comes at a great cost to students’ mental health.

It doesn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t be this way.

Even if grades are canceled retroactively in June, we absolutely cannot bank on kids’ (and parents’) ability to pivot, reboot, and instantly recover from months of anguish and isolation. That’s not how nervous systems work. Rightly so, kids and parents will feel betrayed that their anguish was ignored all along and they struggled for naught.

As an already depressed and anxious demographic, kids are going to have a monumental task of making up for this pandemic semester (or semesters), returning to school in a compromised state. By removing grade pressure from the equation, we, the adults, can bolster the resiliency process—modeling for our students that flexibility, not GPA is the superpower and foundation of mental health and well-being.

Legions of teachers have long been on the same page and immediately shifted focus to the pressing emotional needs of their students. While not missing a beat, heroically reshaping learning overnight to put education online, they have also stepped in as counselors and as friends, being the lifeline for their students in more poignant ways than ever. But even teachers saying “don’t worry about grades” does not hold power when the specter of that report card hangs over kids’ lives.

What can we do?

Institute a universal pass/fail system for secondary education as many colleges have. Unlike costly mental health interventions— it’s free. Flex on the amount of work, flex on deadlines. Flexibility should be the skill everyone builds in this time.

In adult world income tax deadlines have been delayed, job performance reviews rescheduled, mortgage payments deferred, and stimulus checks on the way, small signs of the need to adjust life under pressure. Recognizing the energy it takes to make ourselves sit still in a crisis when our nervous system has for millions of years been engineered to fight or flee, articles have gone viral eloquently describing our inability to focus, be productive, or sleep restfully, naming this tangle of feelings: grief.  

Kids are grieving too. Young kids can’t play outside, teens can’t escape their angst with their friends. They are missing out on all the hard-earned culminating events—graduations, proms, class trips. Their future—school, college, dating, jobs— rests in a shapeless haze of dread and uncertainty. They don’t know what they can reasonably hope for. Neither do we.

We need to show kids how flexibility and resilience really work: They can let go of their GPA concerns right now, that precarious grasp on that stand in for self-worth, because their well-being is more important. Especially now. Kids can’t give themselves permission to do this. We need to.

And there’s one more thing here. Grades are out of sync with the emerging paradigm of this moment. Grades are me thinking in a crisis from which we can only recover if we think and act as we. People should count more than grades. A new zeitgeist is emerging out of the havoc: We must come together all in one global nest to take care of each other rather than the old model of single-mindedly trying to power through as individuals, each of us just making sure all of our ducks are in a row: Witness Global Citizen’s One World: Together at Home virtual concert, and all the other heroic collaborations by artists to support first responders and fund essential medical supplies. We must include kids in this shift. It is their future.

When classrooms open again— and they will—students should walk through those doors bolstered by our collective determination, and as emotionally ready and prepared as possible for the formidable re-orientation and catch up they face. Keeping students in an anxious state throughout the pandemic by making them worry about grades impedes that preparation and resilience. Lift off the pressure where you easily can. Before it’s too late to be of benefit, cancel grades.