Building Engagement with Distance Learning

DL #22: Grading Considerations for Inclusive Classrooms in an Online Environment

School communities have used summer break as an opportunity to reflect on the unexpected end of last school year and the many unanswered questions. One such pressing issue to solve is how to assign grades through virtual learning formats. Many schools ended the school year with a pass-fail model as a way to ease the stress of teachers and address some of the inequity among students with limited access to technology or other barriers. As school districts plan for the upcoming school year, many districts are offering an array of options, including fully online or partial in person and online classes. It is imperative that school districts give teachers guidance to ensure equitable grading practices for all students, including students with significant cognitive disabilities, in inclusive classrooms. Grading in a virtual climate can be successful beyond a pass-fail model. This Distance Learning article will provide teachers some ideas on how to support all learners through informative grading practices. 

Factors Impacting Grades in an Online Environment

Feldman (2020) outlined three factors with implications for how all students may perform in an online environment during COVID-19:

  1. Stress related to COVID-19 can negatively impact student academic performance. Families impacted by COVID-19 in any way- medically, financially, educationally- experience an incredible amount of stress, and this is no different for families of students with significant cognitive disabilities.
  2. ​ ​Economic and resource differences, which  may vary across racial and ethnic groups, may influence student academic performance  during school closures. Families who do not have the resources to support their child’s learning are at a disadvantage during distance learning. This may be even more impactful for students with significant cognitive disabilities who are even more reliant on support from their families in an online learning environment.
  3. Most teachers have not been adequately prepared to provide high-quality instruction remotely. Teachers were not prepared to provide instruction nor specially designed instruction in an online format by their education preparation programs or in professional development from their districts. Student accessibility of hardware, software, and the internet can also impact grading if students are unable to complete assignments.

Changing Mindset for Grading Practices

As teachers are adapting to using online learning management systems and are getting more comfortable with setting virtual class meetings, one question remains: How do I know my students are learning? This question is typically answered in a number of ways (for example, formative and summative grades, progress monitoring, work samples). But, as the fall semester approaches with the likely prospect of involving online delivery methods of instruction, grading methods for all students, including those with significant cognitive disabilities, need careful planning. Stakeholders need to ask themselves, does an “A” mean something different in an online environment than it does in a face-to-face classroom?

To get a deeper understanding of the considerations of grading for students with significant cognitive disabilities in inclusive classrooms and how to talk about grading with parents, see the grading articles in The Foundation of Inclusive TIPS series. Even with the foundation of applying a standards-based grading approach to students with significant cognitive disabilities, determining how to apply these concepts during distance learning presents new challenges. 

The table below shows a thought progression to guide teachers’ thinking about online grading and what the online grading system means.

Change from asking yourself...

To asking yourself...

“How do I assign grades through distance learning?”

“How do I know my students are learning what I am teaching?”

“What type of assessments should I give to know my students met standards?”

“What can I do to help my students show what they know about the standards?” 

“How can I tell if my students are meeting benchmarks?”

“How can I get authentic performance data from my students as evidence of student learning?”

Quick Tips for Grading through Distance Learning

When thinking about grading in an online environment, it helps to consider three focus areas: content (the what of grading), format (how assignments are given), and communication (how grades will be shared). Below are tips for considering how to grade content, format assignments, and share grades with students and parents.




Grading should highlight student progress and learning using a few focused assignments on priority standards, rather than assignment completion (for example, busywork).

Consider standards-based grading rather than assigning points and percentages. 

Design assignments that allow students to show the quality of their performance over quantity.

Keep instruction focused by grade level and content area on most essential standards.

Collect authentic student assignments to enable educators to provide relevant feedback for continued learning (for example, pictures of work or audio files).

Design rubrics with assignments where student performance can occur across a continuum, not just accumulation of points.

Collect evidence in multiple formats of student ability according to target standards.

Emphasize formative feedback (for example, teacher/student collaboration, portfolios, journals, discussion posts, video responses, audio recordings, projects, choice boards) and minimize summative assessment.

Have parents be transparent about level of help received to complete an assignment that is turned in. Consider having students and parents sign an integrity statement  (Feldman, 2020).

Overall, grading should focus on the continuation of learning and prioritize each student's personal growth. To put it simply: Grades should be tied directly to the content, the format should be connected to meaningful grading, and parents should be partners to allow students to show what they know.


  • Feldman, J. (2020). To grade or not to grade? Educational Leadership Special Report, (77), 43–36.

Distance Learning Series: DL #22, September, 2020

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Reyes, E., & Wakeman, S. (2020). Grading considerations for inclusive classrooms in an online environment (DL #22). TIES Center.

TIES Center is supported through a cooperative agreement between the University of Minnesota and the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education (# H326Y170004). The Center is affiliated with the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) which is affiliated with the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) at the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. The contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) leads the TIES Center partnership. Collaborating partners are the Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North-Carolina–Charlotte, and the University of North Carolina–Greensboro.

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