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Why one school district says it’s ‘most appropriate’ to stop giving kids A-F grades and move to pass/fail

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Should school districts keep grading students with the usual A-F system now that most campuses are closed and kids are at home doing distance education during the coronavirus pandemic?

Across the country, thousands of school districts have rushed to put together distance learning programs, much of them online, as social distancing and stay-at-home orders are in place to try to stem the crisis. Their first focus was on putting together lessons, assignments and delivery systems for student, with less attention given to exactly how students would be assessed on what they learned.

Now schools and districts are grappling with the grading issue. While there is no national consensus on the best way to do it, one growing trend is a move to some version of pass-fail. Those who are making the change say regular grades don’t make sense with the circumstances of learning so changed, and that there is an inherent inequity issue as some students have few resources at home to help them do schoolwork while others have much more.

That’s where the state of New Mexico is headed in its schools, which are now set to stay closed for the rest of the 2019-20 school year. Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart announced the closure this week, and the state’s Public Education Department issued guidance “encouraging schools and districts to adopt a pass/no credit grading system for the last grading period.”

Some districts are going to a credit/no credit system for middle and high school students, such the one in Palo Alto, Calif., where Superintendent Don Austin announced the change and said colleges would not hold it against today’s juniors who will apply for admission for fall 2021. (Harvard University, for example, released a message to high school juniors telling them not to worry about the chaos affecting their chances of being accepted.)

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Lincoln Public Schools in Virginia is doing the same thing for the last quarter of the academic year, the Journal Star reported, while officials figure out how to grade elementary school students.

In North Carolina, new rules went into effect moving to pass-fail only for high school seniors, with A-F grades still being given in other grades. But in Ohio’s Crestwood school district, pass-fail will apply now to students from kindergarten through eighth grade, with details to be worked out for high school students. "We don’t want to hurt anyone’s GPA [grade-point average],” Superintendent David Toth said, according to the Record-Courier.

In western New York, the Buffalo News reported, some suburban districts are not giving letter grades to elementary school students, while Buffalo Public Schools is.

Teachers in Wisconsin’s Madison Metropolitan School District started a petition asking that the grading system change to pass/fail for middle and high school students. The petition says keeping the regular system “upholds racism” by discriminating against students who don’t have support at home. It also says such a change would allow students to “experiment and improve without worrying about harming” their grade-point averages.

“We believe moving to a pass/fail grading model centers the fundamental needs — physical & mental health, child care, financial strain — of all involved stakeholders while still promoting academic excellence and equity," it says. "Students will experience less stress about academic performance, parents will feel less obligation to ‘homeschool’ their children, and teaching staff will be able to explore this unfamiliar method of instruction without the stress of having to parse out the difference between letter grades.”

Tim Le Monds, a spokesman for the Madison Metropolitan School District, said officials are “currently looking at different grading options” and pass/fail is one of them, but no decision has yet been made.

One school district that explained in unusually fine detail why it was moving from A-F grades to pass/fail for all students is the Verona Public School district in New Jersey. It sent a lengthy announcement to families (which you can see in full below).

Verona Superintendent Rui M. Dionisio said in an email that it was important “not to underestimate the conditions that many families are currently facing and will encounter in the coming weeks” and that his administration wants to pursue “the most fair and appropriate way forward.”

“With covid illness cases on the climb, along with the impact of lost or reduced employment, and other emerging challenges, we believe the most fair and appropriate way forward for our students is one that removes imposed academic stressors of grades during one of the most challenging times in recent history,” he said.

Verona’s community message to middle and high school families says that the district initially thought the school closings would be relatively brief.

“However, as we are now confronted with the distinctive challenge of our schools closing for a prolonged period of time, the conversation regarding grading our students has shifted,” it said. "We particularly believe this is necessary when considering the myriad of hardships that may present themselves at this time, such as a family member becoming ill, a parent losing a job, a family-owned business that is struggling, increased and ongoing social isolation and more. In short, while we all desire a measure of continuity, we do not believe that traditional practices are sufficient or appropriate in the chaotic and unstable environment we currently find ourselves in.

"Moreover, we are a district that believes in supporting our students’ social, emotional, and mental wellness. In fact, we know that in order for a student to be successful in school, these three components need to be solidified before the fourth component, academic learning, can begin to take shape. We are indeed living in a unique time and since we will most likely not be returning to school for an extended period of time, we have decided to implement a pass/fail grading system [at H.B. Whitehorne Middle School and Verona High School] for the remainder of the academic year.

“... After much careful consideration, the Verona Public School district has decided that this revision in our grading practices is the most appropriate course of action to support our students, parents, and staff during these challenging times by reducing the stress for everyone," it said.

The district is also moving to pass/fail for elementary school students, who were moved from A-F grades to standards-based grading several years ago, Dionisio said.

Here’s the full message from Verona Public Schools to its middle and high school community. Following that is the letter sent to elementary school families.