Maggie Merron, a first-grade teacher at Bullis Charter School in Los Altos, reads to her students with video lessons. (Photo courtesy Kate Merron, via EdSource)

Over 6 million public school students in California are “sheltering in place” at home. All are supposed to be doing school work through a new “distance learning” curriculum school districts are currently putting into place. One of the biggest questions is whether to grade students’ work — and if they are graded, what kinds of grades, and what can they be used for. The California Department of Education has issued detailed guidance on the issue, but most decisions will be made at a local level.

The following Quick Guide answers these questions — to the extent that answers are available.  It will be updated as district policies are posted or become clearer. Please let us know what your district is doing by writing to us at, and putting “Grades” in the subject line!

Q: Will the work students do this spring via distance learning be graded?

A:  Yes, it is most likely that student’s work will be graded — although in most cases not in traditional ways.  The detailed guidance published by the  California Department of Education says that it expects that students’ work will continue to be graded. But the final decision on this issue will be made by local school districts, and there is great deal of variability on this issue.  Districts may also have different grading policies for different grade levels. At least one district — San Francisco Unified — is considering awarding all students an automatic A.

Q: Will students be graded on an A-F scale?

A: Many school districts have said they will move to grading work on a credit/no credit or pass/no pass basis.  In some districts, students will have a choice as to whether to receive a letter grade, or to be evaluated on a pass-no pass basis. But exactly how grades will be awarded will depend on the school districts where a student is enrolled, along with what teachers decide in a particular course.

Q: Are there other options that might be available to students?

A:  The guidance offered by the state suggests other options — such as allowing a student to drop a course, and have it be listed as an incomplete until he or she is able to make it up later. Other options are accepting the grade they were getting in the class before the shut down, or to convert it to an independent study class. Students would have the opportunity to improve their final grade between now and the end of the school year. Check with your local school district or charter school to see which of these options might be available.

Q: Why did the California Department of Education issue its ”guidance” for educators, and what’s in it?

A:  Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order on March 13 saying school districts could receive the state funds they normally receive based on average daily attendance. One condition is that schools would have to provide a high quality education remotely “to the extent feasible.” The guidance was in response to many questions raised by school districts and others as to whether the work students do would be graded, and whether it would count toward meeting graduation requirements.  It provides a range of options, as well as a list of resources for educators.

Q:  What happens to the grades students were receiving before schools shut down in March?

A:  This is one of the trickiest issues facing school districts.  If a student was doing well before the school closures, most school districts will want to make sure that the work the student did is not ignored. The grade will serve as a baseline for whatever the final assessment a student is awarded on his or her report card, whether it is pass/no pass, credit/no credit, or a letter grade. If a student was doing poorly, or was failing a course, the student would normally have had the opportunity to improve their grades. That is why most districts will try to find ways so that a student is not locked into low or failing grades.

Q: What if a student’s grades drop after the shift to distance schooling?  

A: In general, the principle recommended by the state, and adopted by most states, is “to hold students harmless” during this pandemic. That means that the grades they receive during distance learning, will not have a negative impact on their overall GPA in relation to graduation or gaining admission to college.

If students do not get credit or a passing grade, they may have the opportunity to revise assignments to improve their grades or to submit extra credit work. They will also have the opportunity to take additional courses over the summer or at another time to complete the requirements for graduation.

Q:  Do school districts need permission from the state to award credits on a pass/no pass or credit/no credit basis?

A:  No. There is nothing in the Education Code that governs whether a class can be offered as credit/no credit, pass/no-pass or a modified letter grading. This is a local decision. But the guidance from the state emphasizes the importance of clearly communicating changes in coursework or grading policies to all affected. Districts must also work with teachers and the local bargaining unit to consider options.

Q:  What about special education students, and others with special needs?  Will they also be graded?

A: For a student in special education, any changes in assessment practices should be done in conjunction with a student’s individualized Education Program (IEP) to ensure the changes respond to his or her learning needs.

A:  What if a student gets sick and misses assignments?

B:   The state advises that existing policies should be re-evaluated, taking into account the need to be flexible during this  public health crisis. But it will up to districts and teachers to decide how students can make up late or missing work due to illness or other reasons.

Q:  Will the new policies on grades have an impact on what teachers assign or expect from students?

A:  Assigning a grade in a distance learning context might require teachers to reconsider the  kinds of materials they provide to and accept from students. The guidance from the state gives numerous examples of technology platforms and means for students to demonstrate their learning. These range from PowerPoint slide presentations to video recordings uploaded to YouTube to audio recordings and podcasts, infographics, illustrations, charts, diagrams, discussion threads, journaling, and interactive notebooks using free platforms available on the internet.

Q:  If a school switches to a pass-no pass or credit-no credit system instead of a letter grade, how will that affect a student’s admission to University of California and California State University?

A: Both UC and CSU have indicated that they will accept credit/no credit or pass/no pass grades instead of letter grades for the A-G sequence of courses for all classes taken in the winter/spring and summer of 2020. This applies not only to this year’s senior class but to all students currently in high school who apply to CSU or UC in 2021, 2022 and 2023.

Q:   Will students have to meet existing high school graduation requirements, despite not being in regular school classes?

A:  The state of California sets minimum graduation requirements, which students are still expected to meet. However, school districts and charter schools can petition to the State Board of Education for a waiver of those requirements. The waiver application has to be submitted with input from local teachers’ unions.

Those minimum requirements will continue without change during the coronavirus crisis.  Many local school boards and charter schools have set graduation requirements beyond the state’s requirements specified in the Education Code. They have the authority to revise these policies and modify any additional requirements.


FAQ’s on Grading and Graduation Requirements,  California Department of Education, April 2020.

* This guide was prepared by Joan Bissell and Louis Freedberg.

Story originally published by EdSource.