While COVID-19 is changing the ways in which education is taught, it is also changing the ways in which it is evaluated.
To some extent, expectations of students are different now than what they were prior to the pandemic, and the process of learning either virtually or in a socially distanced environment is more experimental for them, parents, teachers, and educational institutions.
There is still the matter of grades, however: Students want to know how their work is being evaluated, and what the ramifications will be for the rest of their educational experience.
In addition to changes in teaching, some schools have radically changed their method of grading, and it’s best to keep yourself informed about how your school is responding.
Here’s what parents and students need to know.
Why Are Grades Changing?
The circumstances surrounding the pandemic have caused many students to alter the content of their curriculum, and schools have changed testing procedures and normal credit opportunities.
Some students may not have the same amount of access to online materials, and teachers are working on the fly to adapt to the situation.
Grades can cause a great deal of stress, and schools have attempted to find ways to circumvent competitive means of evaluation.
It’s hard to compare students who are learning in different places, under different circumstances, and have a different level of access to class materials.
As students are fighting to stay engaged in their studies and extracurricular activities, schools are also trying to avoid the pressures of rushing out grades.
“With the uncertainty of when or if we will be back in the physical settings of our schools this year, and uncertainty around missing work, we wanted to be sure that no student would be negatively impacted by rushing to get grades out,” said West Hartford Superintendent Tom Moore, who wrote to students and parents about a change to pass/fail policies.
The Change in Policy: Deemphasizing Letter Grades
The question isn’t so much why, but how?
While schools are aiming to continue providing learning materials, many have placed less emphasis on letter grades.
As suggested by the state’s department of education, a majority of schools in California are moving to a pass/fail policy that would allow students to choose whether or not they receive letter grades or a simple “pass” to signify they’ve satisfied learning requirements.
The level of flexibility has been different based on the school: Columbia University set in motion a blanket pass/fail policy that applied to all students last semester, while the University of North Carolina allowed students to determine which grading policy worked for them until three months after grades were due.
High school students who have the option to determine how they’re evaluated have many options to consider.
There are advantages to choosing pass/fail; students interested in taking more challenging courses may want to pursue them when it won’t affect their GPA, and less pressure to make high scores can give students more flexibility.
Some schools , such as Duke University, even offer an option to change to pass/fail in the middle of a semester.
Where the pass/fail system can be seen as a positive to some students, there are others, for example, those who are heading into an advanced degree, such as premed, for whom a simple “pass” may not be enough to qualify them for further instruction.
According to the American Medical College Application Service, credits without a letter grade or weighted value “do not have value or weight on the AMCAS GPA” and those “classes are counted in Supplemental Hours in the application unless a school provides an alpha letter grade conversion.”
The good news is that since so many schools are moving to pass/fail, colleges will understand the impact it has on grade reporting. This means that the emphasis will fall on prior coursework and supplemental achievements.
Student and Parent Awareness and School Statements
The grade requirements for public schools are determined by an individual school district, so policies regarding grades are hard to generalize.
The manner in which these policies are communicated to families can vary from district to district as well.
This information might be summarized as press releases on the district’s website, and some school districts will reach out with email announcements discussing changes.
It’s a good idea for parents and guardians to get on a mailing list in order to keep up-to-date with new policies.
While districts may be slow to respond to emails or comments, it’s always a good idea to check social media platforms to see any official postings.
Some schools have offered informational town hall meetings, both in person and digitally, and will respond to common questions and concerns.
Facebook groups and threads can also be a good way to keep up with other parents who share the same priorities.
Schools Discuss How They’ve Adapted
The Common App that is used by over 900 schools students includes information regarding the application, essay, letter of recommendation requirements, and test score requirements.
Reflecting the sign of the times, the application now includes a new section that discloses to students how the school is handling COVID grading policies.
Here is an example from Fremont Union School District:
“Due to the extraordinary circumstances resulting from COVID-19 school closures, Fremont Union High School District adopted a district-wide Credit/No Credit structure for Spring 2020. During that time, students completed synchronous and asynchronous assignments in order to earn credit. Remote Learning curriculum focused on essential content and skills to prepare students for future coursework. Spring 2020 Credit/No Credit courses are not calculated into the GPA.”
Additionally, there is another segment allowing for students to share how COVID-19 has impacted them personally, and how recent events have affected their health and well-being, safety, future plans, and family
We recommend families be fully aware of what school counselors are writing in their section of the Common App related to COVID. This is the section that schools should be communicating about:
- Grading scales and policies
- Graduation requirements
- Instructional methods
- Schedules and course offerings
- Testing requirements
- Your academic calendar
- Other extenuating circumstances
Ask your school or school counselor for a copy of what they are writing. It’s best to be fully aware of everything the school communicates to colleges so you understand how college admissions officers may place your student’s application in context to what information the high school provides.
Planning for College
When it comes to the college application process, it’s best to start looking ahead. If a student is concerned about how pass/fail grades are representative of their work, they can do other things to fill in the margins.
Boosting their supplemental achievements and resumes, earning letters of recommendation, and a great personal essay will help show colleges that they’ve remained alert during the non-traditional calendar year.
When comparing a high school and colleges’ policy, it’s best to remain in communication with both parties.
Contacting an admissions counselor or dean’s office of a university can help a parent or student understand what the acceptance qualifications look like.
Refreshing a policy page can become irritating, and getting to talk to an actual person can help smooth out any confusion that may be lost to obtuse language.
Ideally, education would be returning to normal soon and all communication would be effective and efficient, but these unreliable times call for less than ideal circumstances.
As things develop, you can utilize a school’s resources to keep yourself informed on new and pending changes.
The more you stay informed, the better it will be for everyone involved.
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