Final Grades and Incompletes: A Resource for Doing No Harm

Kurt Hatch, Associate Director, AWSP
Jun 11, 2020
partially painted wall

The use of “Incomplete” (INC) is a complicated aspect of grading during the COVID–19 shutdown. It should be used only with caution, compassion, and tight parameters to avoid doing harm to students, families, and the system.

If your district authorized the use of INCs (some did not), the following four questions are important to consider:

  • Why?
  • Who?
  • Which?
  • How?

Why use INCs?

Are we using them as a measure of compliance or content?

Using grades or INCs as a mechanism of compliance (carrot/stick) or a barometer of “engagement” is a misuse of an instructional tool. 

Research shows grades [when used for compliance] are associated with decreased motivation and lower achievement (Butler & Nisan). Not convinced yet? Read this EdSurge article recently shared by NAESP exploring intrinsic motivation versus traditional grading. 

Are we using INCs - during a pandemic - because the missed content is interesting and relevant to students and absolutely critical to their future?

So here's my challenge to you as you think about grading: are you using them for compliance or for content?

Who should receive INCs?

Physical isolation complicates communication. Gaining a deep understanding of the unique and severe hardships students and families are experiencing is more difficult than ever. Thousands of students are facing very real challenges (anxiety, fear, food insecurity, and housing instability), many for the first time in their lives. And they are doing it without the safety net of school, teachers, or friends. As Sim Kern stated, “grading during the pandemic is grading privilege”. So, getting proximal to the pain of students and families is critical in order to wisely and compassionately answer the who question.

Examples from stories relayed to me.

A middle school teacher and parent of a sophomore asked her daughter:

“If we did A/INC for grades, don’t you think you and your friends wouldn’t try as hard?”

Her daughter, the sophomore, responded:

“Mom, I woke up for the last three nights, in the middle of the night, literally panicking about grades, school assignments and all of the confusing things the teachers are having us do online right now. If I didn’t have to worry about grades and could just focus on learning, that would be soooo amazing! You know I want to be a medical doctor when I’m older…so I would still study and work hard to learn. My friends would too. But, without the stress of grades, especially right now, I would be able to learn so much better because I would be getting a lot more sleep.”

Another parent shared their thoughts with one of their daughter's high school teachers:

As with many students, particularly those situated much farther from the opportunities we are able to provide our daughter, learning online has been a struggle for her. Despite having access to two parents working from home and, more recently, a tutor, it has been quite difficult for her to keep up with several different platforms, changing standards and evolving expectations for engagement and homework. The lack of direct instruction, remediation, 504 accommodations, in-person support, and peer-to-peer interaction have layered on many challenges. Most concerning to us is that it has impacted her love of learning. So, while we will maintain high expectations and will continue to support, encourage, and motivate her to remain engaged in distance learning, we must create a balance for her and for our household. With this in mind, we will be modifying her workload.

Who should be assigned an Incomplete?

Currently, there are poverty-line, single, high school teen-moms with no childcare or wifi. Despite a safety-net (school) being shut-down, these students are learning important life-lessons as full-time parents; keeping their babies safe and healthy. They are showing tremendous resilience and grit.

Thousands of middle-class families cannot make ends meet. Rather than “doing school”, many of their children are working, full-time, risking their health, at minimum wage jobs.

I know of undocumented parents who keep their home-electricity off to avoid I.C.E. Their high-school children, who are citizens, cannot engage in distance learning while the family focuses on avoiding being separated by deportation.

There are families who own restaurants. With all employees laid off, their high school students are risking their health; providing take-out and delivery-service to put food on the table. They have no time or energy for distance learning.

“My mom’s a medical doctor. My dad’s home on quarantine. During the day, I’m responsible for my brother. He’s seven and on the spectrum. I was getting all As, but online learning is confusing, and teachers aren’t allowed to call students on the phone. My math and science classes are now the Khan Academy and teachers are giving grades based on “engagement”. I want to learn, but it is difficult because I have serious anxiety about my parents and my little brother. A family member passed away, I miss my friends and I just can’t do school right now."

Getting proximal to the pain of students and families helps us pause before deciding to give Incompletes. If you decide that Incompletes are not an effective learning tool during a pandemic shut-down, answering the following “which” questions is the next step:


  • …letter-grade would be equitable and fair to each and every child facing difficulty “doing school”? The grade of “D”?

  • …letter-grade presumes all students are capable of excellence? The grade of “C”?

  • …letter-grade shows we believe each and every child has the capacity to achieve at the highest levels? The grade of “B”?

  • …letter-grade Does No Harm to GPAs and self-esteem? The grade of “A”.

These are critical questions to answer as we determine the use of INCs and in order to move towards student-centered assessment.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of student-centered assessment is that it is motivating. Many people associate being evaluated with mild-to-moderate anxiety, not motivation. Student-centered assessment promotes learning and growth by providing useful feedback to the students, their teachers, and others about what the students need in order to progress toward the learning target. (Andrade, 2013)

When thinking about your why for giving Incompletes or who, if anyone, will benefit from an Incomplete, please also consider how the process will unfold:

  • How will we inform students and parents about INCs?
  • How will we provide language interpretation or supports for students with no wifi or a stable address?
  • How will we notify parents when a student is nearing an Incomplete?
  • How will we establish and communicate all timelines?
  • How will we provide for an appeals process for INCs?
  • How many students and families will serve on the appeals panels?
  • How will we adjust and provide remediation if we are still teaching remotely in the fall?

As we proceed, let’s take a collective deep breath and ensure we do no harm in the present. Let’s avoid getting bogged down in the grading-during-a-pandemic question in order to create the bandwidth needed for everyone to focus on the future of school. Let’s ensure our decisions move past the problematic nature of pre-COVID grading. We have an opportunity to push the system towards evidence-based, student-centered, assessment practices, and creative ideas for returning to school in the fall.

Lastly - after another deep breath - let’s remember we’re in a global pandemic. Give grace to our students and their families. Let’s stay compassionate and presume they are doing their best during a very difficult time. Give yourself and your colleagues time to think carefully about the why, who, and which questions. It will save you time and resources trying to figure out the how. It will also allow us to look back on this time with confidence knowing we will be remembered for doing no harm.

“I hope every educator who was hesitant before can acknowledge now that grades are weapons of mass inequity. -Xian Frazinger Barrett, Award-winning Chicago Public Schools teacher.

  • Kurt Hatch
  • Grading
  • Assessment
  • COVID-19
  • Hopeful and Inspiring

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