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Grading on the Health Curve
School Administrator, November 2020
In response to a local flare-up of COVID-19 infections, the school district switches to remote learning for the second half of the semester. Internet service across the district is spotty with many students unable to access synchronous video lessons or even Google Classroom tools from their homes. The high school principal proposes that semester grades automatically convert to pass/fail to account for inequitable learning access. Some students and parents protest, saying this unfairly obscures the hard work they've put into their classes and could hurt their GPAs in college applications. What should the superintendent recommend?
“Channel your inner Solomon,” oh superintendent. Coping with COVID-19 requires extraordinary wisdom and clear, consistent, frequent communication.
Keeping what’s best for students top of mind, the wise superintendent will make a fourfold recommendation: (1) students’ grades for the first half of the semester will be recorded on the transcript with an explanation; (2) students can elect to have their grades for this semester recorded as pass/fail if they prefer; (3) all lessons will be made asynchronous for the remainder of the semester; and (4) for the next semester (or year), the district will provide families with free internet hotspots (ideally through partnerships with local business, non-profits and government) to enable all students to learn synchronously.
This recommendation will be communicated frequently and endorsed heartedly through a multitude of media by an array of messengers, including teachers, principals, school board members, local officials, community connectors and higher education leaders.
Frankly, there is more at stake here than students’ GPAs. The superintendent needs to support the principal’s pass/fail proposal and stand behind the recommendation. This decision will create as much equity for all students as possible, and it levels the playing field for students struggling to get digital access.
Complaining parents need to consider the greater whole not just their student. The virus prevails and we must think big picture.
The superintendent ought to inform the board of his/her support for the principal’s recommendation in anticipation of parent calls and e-mails. The superintendent even could provide some talking points to include the need for flexibility by reminding the board that old norms are being challenged. No decision will be 100 percent satisfactory nor will any decision make everyone happy.
Additionally, the superintendent could suggest the district compose a letter signed by the superintendent and board, acknowledging to colleges the many changes and transitions that have occurred during this pandemic. Colleges and universities are in transition, as well, and are equally unsure of what protocols will survive this time of great challenge and change.
In the next many months, similar situations will arise. It will be critical for superintendents and principals to work together and communicate clearly between each other and between the superintendent with their board. Crises create challenges, but they also provide opportunities for creativity and growth. For parents it is a perfect time to teach their child about fluidity and flexibility in life. The same can be said for educators. These life lessons will be as important as the academics we provide for our students.
Today and tomorrow will not be or look the same. The successful survivors will be those who can move towards the conflict and develop new ways to look at problems and issues. This includes educators, students and parents.
Rather than individual principals tackling this issue, it would be most appropriate for the superintendent to assemble a group of representative stakeholders — students, parents, principals, teachers and community members — to grow awareness of the digital divide that exists across the wider student population and the resultant impact on learning and grading.
As we saw back in spring, COVID-19 exacerbated pre-existing issues around equity and access for many schools, adding to the complexity of challenges of bringing effective remote learning to all students.
In addition to the goal of growing a shared understanding of the larger issue among the aforementioned cross-section of stakeholders, the group must be solution-oriented, and involve internet providers, local college representatives and community members to get creative about narrowing the access gap. The decision about grading doesn’t necessarily need to happen quickly, especially at the cost of community outreach and input. In the end, it may not simply be a decision between normal grading versus pass/fail. But whatever is decided must offer a rationale that’s clearly communicated and understood by all.
Given the inequity created by the lack of internet access, the high school principal has taken an appropriate step and should receive the superintendent’s support. All students need a fair chance to access the curriculum and meet the standards set for passing courses. If equitable access is unavailable, it is important to not penalize those who do not have the opportunity to meet the standards. In addition to pass/fail grading, students without internet access should be given additional opportunities to make up work in order to receive a passing grade.
It is understandable that students who wish to attend competitive colleges will be concerned about the decision’s impact on their ability to compete for acceptance. The principal can address those concerns by indicating that their work ethic and performance can be highlighted by teachers and counselors in their letters of reference. Their transcripts also can indicate that the pass/fail grades were due to pandemic-related adjustments made by the school, rather than by choices of the individual student.
It is likely that the school district knew of these gaps in access prior to the switch to remote learning and could have taken such steps as providing students with hot spots and computers or working with internet providers to extend service to areas with missing or unreliable connections. Taking proactive steps could have prevented these inequities and enabled all students to participate as fully as possible, regardless of the changing conditions faced by students and families.