Particularly, grading in the time of COVID-19.
The past year and a half in education have been insane. COVID threw us into a world of distance learning, remote teaching, and black Zoom screens. Many of us have never seen some of our students from this year. The pandemic upturned the entire landscape of education, and grading hasn’t caught up.
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Failure rates have been going up across the United States. States are trying to figure out what they are going to do to get these students “back on track”. There has been no instruction from the federal government. Various states are creating piecemeal policies. Students don’t know what is going on. Teachers don’t know what is going on.
Across the United States, students are suffering. In the Bay area, there has been a 50% increase in failing grades. In New Mexico, a school reported 79% of students failing. The failure rate in Houston is 42%, in St. Paul, it’s 40%, in Kentucky it’s 65%. We see the data. We know what’s happening. What we haven’t done is figure out a clear way to fix it.
These failure rates are disproportionately affecting students of color, students at risk, low-income students, and English learners. These students, who would normally have extra programs available to help them, are being left behind. At the beginning of this school year, only 10% of principals indicated that their school was providing students with tutoring or supplemental instruction. Many of these students are having to take care of younger siblings and ensure their learning. Some had to take care of the housework. Some even had to get jobs to help their parents pay the bills. These kids have had much more going on than just school, and we should grade them with that in mind.
In my home state of North Carolina, the Department of Public Instruction has now issued recommendations on grading. These have not been approved yet, but here is a summary:
Elementary-aged students will not receive a grade at all and will be “graded” based on several factors, including their learning.
Students in middle school will receive either a pass or withdrawal grade.
High school students will be able to choose whether they want to be graded on a numerical scale or on a pass/fail basis. They can report their numeric grade as of March 13th, their improved grade throughout the semester, or a withdrawal grade.
While this helps to take into account student home issues, what does it mean for the students trying to get into college? How can we rectify the post-pandemic grading situation? The answers are not entirely clear.
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In California, seven families are suing the state, alleging it failed to adequately educate low-income students. They note that teachers and students were not provided with needed devices, internet, training, or support. The state alleges it has taken all action to protect students learning and public health. While this case is moving through the court system, the problem isn’t California. This problem is facing students across the United States.
Across the board, GPAs and test scores of juniors and seniors have dropped amid the COVID pandemic. Among the largest groups harmed are minority, first-generation college, rural, and otherwise disadvantaged students. This compounds the problems these groups already faced in the American school system. 1 in 5 students in the highest-poverty schools report inadequate internet access. How are they supposed to do their work/homework without the internet? Teachers have not received guidance on how to help them. They are stuck with paper packets and no live instruction. Black, Latinx, and Native American students are disproportionately disciplined in schools, leading to suspension and no live instruction once again. Students, embarrassed at the shape of their homes, refuse to turn on cameras, lessening relationship-building. These issues have come together to hurt minority, at-risk, and ELL students’ chances of getting into college. Many 2021 seniors are nervous that pandemic-impacted grades will keep them out. Some fret that even if they do manage to get in, their college experience will be more virtual “learning”. Some are so far behind they believed they couldn’t catch up, and have dropped out. Many worry about what financial aid if any, they will get based on their pandemic grades.
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Usually, the first step in the admissions process is making sure grades are up to par. If they aren’t, the application, marked as “likely not admitted”, will be discarded. Many colleges have been moving from this system to a “whole-person” admissions ideal.