Should the Virus Mean Straight A’s for Everyone?

As high schools approach the end of an academic year without proms or field trips or graduation ceremonies, another fundamental part of American education is being transformed: the report card.

School districts across the country have adopted new grading systems for this semester, driven by concern for students who face hardship from the coronavirus and its economic fallout. Some districts have dropped letter grades altogether, while others are guaranteeing A’s in most cases, or ensuring that students’ performance during the pandemic will not count against them.

But there are places where administrators have encountered stiff resistance to the idea of dropping grades, even temporarily. Some parents and students are concerned about the ability of high achievers to compete in selective college admissions, while others worry that eschewing grades means students will have less incentive to participate in remote learning.

“Are expectations going to be this very fluid line that we keep shifting?” asked Tanji Reed Marshall, a director at the Education Trust, a national advocacy group focused on low-income students and students of color. She warned against “deficit thinking” that underestimates what young people from poor families are capable of, even during a public health crisis.

Over the past few weeks, many public schools have adopted what is called a “hold harmless” approach to grades, including those in Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest district. The approach allows students to use the rest of the semester to improve their scores, but their final grades cannot drop lower than they were before schools shut down.

New York City, the nation’s largest district, will still issue letter grades in high school, although students with failing scores will get an “in progress” instead of an F. But they can also opt into a pass/fail system that would not lower their grade point averages, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Tuesday.

Nowhere has the debate been more passionate than in the San Mateo Union High School District south of San Francisco. It is a place that epitomizes the socioeconomic divides that have always characterized American education, with the children of tech executives attending class alongside the children of undocumented gardeners and office cleaners.

An April 16 school board meeting to address grading drew more than 500 people. In public comments delivered via Zoom, many parents and students argued that grades are crucial during the college admissions process. One student said grades provide “compensation and incentive for people to work hard.”

Without letter grades, “What motivation do we have to continue working for the end of the school year?” asked another student, who described herself as having “97s in most of my classes.”

After listening for more than two hours, the five board members, slumped wearily in their virtual boxes, debated one another for another 90 minutes. They then voted, 3-2, against the wish of the majority of the speakers, adopting a credit/no credit grading system for the spring semester.

“Our mission is to provide the students with the best education,” said Robert H. Griffin, a board member who voted for credit/no credit, “and not necessarily the highest G.P.A.”

“Every facet of almost everybody’s life has been disrupted,” he continued, noting that long-term inequities — such as lack of access to quality housing, health care and technology — had been magnified during the crisis, making it difficult for some students to make the most of a chaotic transition to learning from home.

Some of the loudest voices in the grading debate are those of affluent public school parents eager to see their offspring rewarded for hard work in tough courses. They note that many private schools are continuing to issue letter grades, which they fear could put their children at a disadvantage if public school districts do not do the same.

But some argue that it is low-income students who stand to benefit the most from earning grades because they may not have the other résumé boosters — international travel, essay-writing tutors, expensive summer classes — that can help set a college application apart.

That was the position of Marc Friedman, the school board president in San Mateo, who voted against the credit/no credit system, saying students should be able to opt in to receiving letter grades.

“We have made this chasm bigger between the haves and have-nots,” he said in an interview after the vote.

Since schools shut down last month, Rosa Jerónimo-Flores, a junior at Capuchino High School in the district, is now responsible for caring for her 3-year-old brother, whose preschool is closed, while their parents work outside the home in maintenance and trucking. She must complete her schoolwork during the first half of the day so another brother can use her laptop in the afternoon. They live in a one-bedroom apartment, so Rosa retreats to her mother’s car for privacy when she needs peace and quiet.

Still, she would prefer to receive grades for the current semester, as she works toward her goal of becoming either a paramedic or veterinarian. Under the credit/no credit system, she said, “People will become lazy and not want to keep up.”

Although some states have made recommendations regarding grades during the pandemic, most have not, leaving districts and charter schools to make their own decisions.

Colleges and universities have offered little clarity. The University of California system, one of the largest in the country, has said it will not penalize applicants who do not get letter grades this semester — but it will still consider grades from those who have them.

The Success Academy charter school network in New York City, which is known for tough accountability, announced on Monday that it would issue regular grades, while simplifying expectations.

In Denver, high school students will have the ability to opt in to receiving letter grades in specific courses. San Francisco considered a system in which middle and high school students would have automatically received straight A’s, but it ultimately adopted a credit/no credit policy on Tuesday evening. And the Seattle Public Schools declared last week that every high school student will receive either an A or an incomplete for the spring semester.

The Seattle district noted in a news release that “grades have historically rewarded students with privilege and penalized others. This issue has become even more apparent during this Covid-19 emergency.”

The shutdown “shows how arbitrary a lot of the traditional structures we have are,” Seattle’s superintendent, Denise Juneau, said in an interview.

In San Mateo, it was teachers who pushed most strongly for the credit/no credit option. Many argued that traditional grades would be farcical right now — incomparable to grades issued in the same courses a year ago, and unfair to many students.

Aliza Zenilman, a biology teacher at San Mateo High School, said her students were currently unable to do laboratory experiments, a key part of the curriculum. Some have fallen out of touch or are struggling to find the time and space to complete assignments. One is working six days a week at a pizza place because he is the only person in his family with a job. Another is living in a small apartment with 13 other people.

Credit/no credit is the best grading option given these circumstances, Ms. Zenilman said. “I don’t feel like this semester has any reflection on what a student’s ability could be in a college-level science class.”

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