Dear SAU 70 School Community,
Since receiving the grading recommendation from the Hanover High School Faculty and Administration a week ago, I have spent an embarrassingly large amount of time researching the issue. In such an academically focused community, it’s not surprising that even in the midst of a global pandemic-induced shutdown of the schools, many of us are deeply anxious about the impact this lost quarter could have on our children’s GPAs. Nearly fifty parents and students took the time to email me with their opinions about grading for this period of remote learning. 21 wrote to support the credit / no credit proposal, 11 wrote to advocate for maintaining traditional letter grades, and 15 suggested some type of compromise, such as offering choice, or using third quarter grades as a proxy for the semester.
A few people who advocated maintaining letter grades pointed out that a student-initiated petition urging the administration to move to pass/fail grading should be disregarded because it included digital signatures from people unaffiliated with our district. With that warning in mind, I reviewed the 15 pages of names and found that at least 200 of the 341 at least appear to be Hanover and Norwich students. Acknowledging the concerns some of you expressed regarding the validity of such instruments, I view this petition as one measure of public sentiment. Public opinion, whether from your emails, or from petitions, did help me focus my own quick review of this issue by raising key questions and concerns.
In the past seven days, I have reviewed the posted COVID-adapted policies of dozens of colleges and universities. I have also spoken or emailed with many deans and directors of undergraduate admissions from a wide range of schools including large state universities, small liberal arts colleges, and some of the country’s most selective institutions. One of the consistent reassurances they shared is that their own institutions are grappling with this same issue, so they deeply understand the challenges we are dealing with in high schools. They assured me that they realize that any letter grade assigned in any remotely-taught course is not equivalent to the pre-COVID marks a student earned in that course. While the grade may be the same, they know that we’ve had to adapt both our content and pedagogy and they will be reviewing applications with this awareness. Several of the admissions folks told me that they will be looking for students who are able to explain how they persevered despite conditions that were beyond their control. For example, the MIT admissions staff offers the following reassurance:
In recent days, we have received more questions from prospective students worried about disruptions to other aspects of their education, including grading policies, extracurricular activities, and so on. I’m writing to reaffirm that, consistent with our longstanding practice, we will not penalize students for factors outside their control, including changes to grading policies and procedures, cancellations of activities and exams, and more, because of COVID or any other disaster or disruption. We always strive to evaluate applicants fairly in their context, especially in times like these.
Regionally and nationally, high schools are wrestling with this decision and attempting to find the most equitable solution for their students. I think we should all be proud and grateful that this was the guiding criterion for the HHS staff when they developed their recommendation. Some of you shared examples of how a credit / no credit grade could undermine your student’s GPA, inhibit motivation to complete remote learning assignments, or truncate a third quarter rally. These very real concerns demand consideration. In addition to teacher and counselor addenda to application materials, transcript annotations, and recommendation letter elucidations, I think we can expand the equitable protection of our students by adding one additional “grade” and altering our GPA calculation.
If we add a “credit plus” as an option for our teachers, we can both recognize students for exceptional performance on the adapted remote learning curricula, and for exceptional effort despite adverse circumstances. I believe this will allow us to give appropriate weight to the work of high achieving or ascending third quarter students without penalizing those who face the long list of challenges that this pandemic has posed for many of our students and families. Simply allowing a choice of letter grade, or credit / no credit could, as our teachers worry, exacerbate disparities that are truly beyond the control of our students.
The second modification that I believe will help expand equity is the inclusion of third quarter grades in the calculation of the GPA. Whether we simply report quarter grades on the transcript, or count them as 1/3 of the full year calculation, we need to ensure that students get credit for the graded work they already completed. Most of the admissions professionals I spoke with emphasized that they hope schools will give them as much objective criteria to work with as possible.
Some of you may disagree with these recommendations, but I believe the HHS faculty and staff crafted their grading suggestion with our students’ best interests in mind. Their concern for our students and for the integrity of our program is obvious. The lengths all of our teachers in all of our schools have gone to in order to salvage the school year have been admirable.
I will be presenting a much more concise version of this recommendation to the Dresden School Board.
Enjoy the weekend,