Why One Teacher Gave All 'A's' During Last Spring's Lockdowns — And Why Another School Decided Not To Change A Thing

Manuel Rustin, a teacher at John Muir High School in Pasadena, walks to the stage to accept a Milken Educator Award at a Jan. 2012 ceremony. (Milken Family Foundation)

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Back in March, two days after the coronavirus pandemic forced Pasadena's John Muir High School to close its doors, history teacher Manuel Rustin sent his juniors an assignment: a simple, three-page essay.

"If you would've told me at that time, when I sent that out," Rustin recalled over Zoom, "that I would arrive at a place where I'd give all my students A's, I would be like, 'Impossible!'"

Not just A's on that assignment; A's for the entire semester — and for Rustin, this essay was the turning point.

Rustin had practically spoon-fed his students everything they'd need to write this paper: primary source documents, court cases, class notes. They'd been studying the topic — school segregation — for weeks before the lockdown. All they'd have to do while in quarantine was watch one last documentary film.

"I thought it was fine," Rustin said. "And it was not fine. The essays that were done were a whole mess."

Of Rustin's 50 juniors, only around 20 even turned in a completed paper. "Less than 10" of those essays would've been acceptable, Rustin says — and this from a group of students he considered academically strong.

"That's when I realized, 'Okay, I've got to pump the brakes,'" Rustin recalled. "In my head, we're all at home chilling. In their head, the world's falling apart."

"Kids weren't prepared," he added. "Staff weren't prepared."

'THOSE POLICIES FELL APART FASTEST'

So Rustin confronted a question that many teachers and school districts faced last spring: How is a teacher supposed to grade these mostly-unfinished, mostly-awful essays?

Across Southern California, the abrupt switch to distance learning forced many school districts to relax their student grading practices. Los Angeles, Long Beach and Pasadena Unified — where Rustin teaches — all promised no student would receive an "F" last semester. Many schools also promised students' grades wouldn't decline from where they stood in mid-March.

These choices were fraught. Some teachers felt relaxed grading policies actually caused students to tune out last spring.

But to Susan Brookhart, who's studied grading for 30 years, the pandemic simply exposed flaws at the core of how most teachers grade.

"Some of those policies," said Brookhart, a professor emerita at Duquesne University, "make an assumption that grades are 'pay' for work students do; essentially that means I'm grading effort, and that's not what grades should be."

And when the coronavirus hit, she said, "Those are the traditional grading policies that fell apart fastest."

Manuel Rustin (right), a teacher at Pasadena's John Muir High School (Submitted photo)

EVERYONE GETS A 'TROPHY'

To Rustin — a 17-year classroom veteran and a 2011 winner of the prestigious Milken Educator Award — the inequity was obvious.

John Muir High School's students are mostly low-income. Many didn't have working internet. His students were squeezed between crises at home and a crisis at school.

So as Rustin looked over his pile of lackluster segregation essays, at first he considered making the assignment extra credit — but then quickly dismissed the idea.

"Students," he figured, "who are really chilling at home in a comfortable environment— I'm going to let them have extra credit, but the other students, they're just stuck?"

Hence Rustin's decision: He gave every student in his classes last spring an A. Not only the juniors in his history class, but the seniors in his economics classes, and the students taking his hip-hop studies elective.

"It felt good, too," he remembered with a grin during an interview over Zoom.

Why not just give students a pass-fail grade? Because, he figured, fancy private schools would give their kids A's — and put his students at a disadvantage with a "public school 'P.'"

By giving them an A, "I'm not giving them a mark of excellence," Rustin explained. "This is to make sure nobody else out there could look like they did better than you right now. I'm not giving you a trophy, I'm giving everyone a trophy, and now we don't know who did better or not because it's just not fair to judge each other in that way, right now, for this one semester."

Rustin said many of his colleagues disagreed; he said a viral Medium essay he wrote about his all-A's choice generated so much debate that he called an informal staff meeting to clear the air.

But Brookhart said Rustin had keyed on a big flaw with traditional grading practices: Awarding students points just for meeting deadlines or understanding a worksheet on the first try is inequitable, especially now, as students navigate all the hurdles of distance learning. Those hurdles include spotty internet connections, broken laptops, distractions — or all-out turmoil — at home.

"My completing this worksheet might be no skin off my nose," Brookhart said. "You completing your worksheet might be a huge effort because you had to fight to get it done."

Plus, asking whether a student completed a worksheet — or even whether he understood this one worksheet — doesn't really answer the bottom line question: when the course is over, did he learn the material?

A PANDEMIC-PROOF GRADING POLICY?

As districts across L.A. County relaxed their grading policies, Yvette King-Berg decided the charter schools she oversaw would hold firm.

"I was like, 'No,'" recalled King-Berg, who runs the YPI Charter Schools network. "You have had 10 weeks of instruction. You need to continue to work for your grades. We 're going to continue to check for mastery."

King-Berg was able to make that call because her charter school network uses a very different method for determining student grades; it's called "standards-based grading."

Instead of counting each assignment for points, or rewarding students for grasping something on the first worksheet, "you're assessing students on what they know at the end," explained Mark Rothenay, a science teacher at YPI's Bert Corona High School in Pacoima.

"They're not really penalized if they make those mistakes," Rothenay said, "because it's okay to make mistakes."

Boiling student grading down to that bottom-line question — "do you know the material or not?" — requires filtering out all the ways traditional, point-based grading systems measure students' effort and punish students' non-compliance.

In standards-based grading, homework becomes more about practice; teachers often don't grade it. Deadlines on assignments become more flexible. Even on projects or tests that do count, students get do-overs and retakes.

If that sounds simple, it's not. Doing standards-based grading right involves complex changes to everything, from classroom management to report cards. Teachers need training so they can not only learn, but embrace the new system.

But YPI Charter Schools have been giving standards-based grades for years — and the system's strengths basically made Bert Corona High School's grading policies pandemic-proof.

For one thing, there's no need for a hold-harmless policy; in a standards-based system, you don't really need to worry about students' grades backsliding because of a missed deadline.

"If we already said, in our judgment, that a student has mastered that skill," explained math teacher Nestor Garcia, "we can't take that back and say, 'Oh no, the student didn't do it on the final so they actually don't know it,' if we've already seen evidence that they do know it."

'I'M GLAD I BROKE AWAY FOR ONE MOMENT'

Bert Corona carried out King-Berg's directive. Some students did receive F's last spring, Garcia said.

But overall, YPI Charter Schools officials say the semester went alright. Students stayed engaged in classes. And while they don't have data to compare, they were pleased with students' scores on some internal standardized tests.

Perhaps that's because of extensive efforts by the school's support staff to hunt down students who didn't show up for online lessons.

But Brookhart wouldn't be surprised if standards-based grading deserved some of the credit for the school's ability to maintain continuity.

"Standards-based grading has proved quite robust, and I've heard that. Anecdotes are not research data, but I have heard anecdotes like that," said Brookhart.

In her semi-retirement, Brookhart does consulting work, and she's received a lot of calls from schools intrigued by standards-based grading.

Pasadena teacher Manuel Rustin was intrigued, too. He had hoped to learn some standards-based grading practices over the summer break, and use it this year.

But he ran into the wall a lot of teachers find: Without training in standards-based practices, or a mandate from your school's administration, reforming your grading policy is really hard. (For the record, Rustin also cautioned that he felt comparisons between a district-run school like his and a charter school like Bert Corona aren't always fair; too many variables differ between his school and a charter.)

There was another reason Rustin delayed exploring a new grading system: for much of the summer, he didn't know whether his classes would be all online or partially in-person.

"So, right now I'm pretty much [grading] the way I've always done it," he said.

Still, "I'm glad I broke away at least for a moment," Rustin added, "at least for that one semester, giving them all A's, and standing by my principles of not wanting to punish a kid or letting them be disadvantaged."

'A PROMISING PRACTICE'

The good news, though, is that Rustin's fall semester is so far going much better than last spring. He said attendance has been strong. Students are much more engaged, he said — and much less panicked about the world outside of school.

Many schools' grading policies are not as relaxed this year as they were during the pandemic. In Rustin's Pasadena Unified School District, the regular A-F policy is back in effect.

And in L.A. Unified, there's no longer a blanket "no-F's" policy; the elementary and secondary grading policies have more-or-less returned to normal.

But LAUSD guidelines for this year do discourage teachers from giving out failing grades, encouraging teachers to make special arrangements with students who are missing assignments and give "Incompletes" rather than "F's" to students whose attendance is spotty.

And the district has also provided some training in mastery grading — a close cousin to standards-based grading.

"While it is not yet a directive," an LAUSD representative said in a statement, "we continue to encourage its use as a promising practice."