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Coronavirus Opening Long-Needed Debate on Grades

May 1, 2020

43 states have decided to close schools for the balance of the year, a clear-eyed decision based on the medical experts’ reckoning on how the coronavirus is going to play out in the coming weeks. In doing so, almost every district shifted to some kind of online learning fully realizing that such a shift would preclude a substantial percentage of students from having access to classes. Now that the school year is coming to a close, districts are facing a tough decision: how to assign grades for the closing months of the school year.

As NYTimes writer Dana Goldstein reports, the solutions to this problem are all over the map. Some districts are giving students “All As”; others are assigning the last grade earned by the student with the proviso that they can improve by doing more work but cannot have their grade reduced; and others are giving students with no access to internet or students who were previously failing their courses an incomplete grade. But almost all schools are offering some variation of “pass/fail” and THAT decision is upsetting to some parents and policy makers.Ms. Goldstein uses the ongoing debate at San Mateo CA district as a lens for examining this issue:

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.”

With that summary of the Board’s action, Mr. Griffin might have opened the door to a debate on the over-arching questions associated with assigning grades, which are “What IS the ‘best education” and “how do we measure it?”

It strikes me that in a world where online learning will be a given for the foreseeable future and where employers increasingly expect their workers to train themselves the best education is one that develops independent self-motivated life-long learners. That ultimate outcome cannot be measured with the traditional grading system we have in place, a system that is designed to sort and select students and provide external rewards and punishments.

A well conceived pass/fail system could promote the kind of learners we need now and will need even more in the future. It could base the passing grades on mastery of the information and skills the school is imparting to students. We use mastery measures for the attainment of drivers licenses, entry into the legal and medical professions, and into various trades and services that require licensure. All of those examinations are pass/fail and some of them are performance based. No one asks about their doctor’s, lawyer’s, electrician’s, or hairdresser’s GPA as a high school student or for the score on their licensure program. Maybe we should use pass/fail for kids. And MAYBE now is the time to debate that issue!

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