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To grade or not to grade?

Schools puzzle over how, or whether, to judge student performance after a chaotic, unprecedented spring

Lea Serena, a second-grade teacher at Boston's Mather Elementary School, said she has been agonizing over what to do about students who have not been participating since schools closed.
Lea Serena, a second-grade teacher at Boston's Mather Elementary School, said she has been agonizing over what to do about students who have not been participating since schools closed.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

There will be no F’s in Michael Maguire’s freshman classes at Boston Latin Academy this term.

At Charlestown High, Francis Pina agonizes over the prospect of giving some of his struggling ninth-graders an "incomplete'' for the spring.

In remote classrooms across the state, normally tough teachers are relaxing their rigor, students are getting multiple chances to redo assignments, and a letter grade has mostly vanished, at least for now.

In Massachusetts, where schools closed in March due to the pandemic, state education leaders have urged districts to institute some form of a credit/no credit system, and not hold students back because of work missed this spring.

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Yet local policies are varied: Some school districts, including Worcester, are awarding students “points” instead of letter grades this quarter; others, including Brockton, are letting students pick their highest grade from an earlier term; and some are adopting the state’s recommended credit/no credit system. (At many schools, credit, or a “pass,'’ indicates that 60 percent of the remote learning assignments were done.)

The policies have frustrated some families who say a pass-fail approach dilutes the hard work of students who’ve successfully completed their online assignments and reliably showed up for Zoom class. But they’ve also caused concern among teachers who agonize over the fairness of doling out an “incomplete” to a student who may be dealing with sick relatives, unreliable Internet and computer access, or new obligations at home.

At the high schools, juniors especially worry about how they might fare on their college applications under a pass/fail system. Some, such as Josh Schreiber, at Wayland High School, worked hard to lift his grades this semester, a period when college admissions officers start taking close notice of applicants’ high school record. His school switched the rules in April. Now, the third and fourth quarters are combined and assessed on a pass/fail basis, with a pass granted to students who “meet or exceed expectations,” according to the school’s website.

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“I consider myself to be a pretty good student,'' said Schreiber. “I work hard, and with the ‘pass/fail’ it’s really hard to stay motivated, because you really don’t have to do very much to pass, and you’re not rewarded at all for doing all the work.”

James Perkins, whose daughter is a junior at Natick High School, also expressed frustration over the decision to scrap letter grades. Second semester is a pivotal period for juniors, he said. While he understands the need to take into account the unequal online learning experiences of students, Perkins adds that “bringing down one student does not lift another student.”

In many cases, school officials wrote and revised new grading policies multiple times over the spring — four times in Natick’s case — as they learned more about the effects of the pandemic and of school building closures on their students. School leaders say that when they finally settled on an approach, usually in late April or early May, they knew not everyone would be satisfied.

“I feel badly that students who had really good grades as of March 12 may feel like they’ve lost those grades,'' said Brian Harrigan, principal at Natick High. But “it just became clear to us that the system was broken,” he said. Grades from the first semester will remain intact, Harrigan said, and their grade point averages will not change.

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Several district leaders said they couldn’t fathom traditional grading because they lacked essential infrastructure necessary to continue teaching students over much of the spring.

In Brockton, years of budget cuts and layoffs stripped the school system’s technology department bare. Roughly 80 percent of the district’s 1,400 teachers were not trained on how to run a virtual classroom, and more than half of the district’s 17,000 students did not have a device or Internet access at home, said Superintendent Mike Thomas.

When Brockton schools closed March 12, many students disappeared, with school staff unable to reach them, Thomas said.

“We’ve been hit really hard with this, so the last thing we wanted to be is punitive on our grading policy,” Thomas said.

Under Brockton’s policy, students can keep the grade they had earned prior to school closure, and even improve those grades by continuing to do some work. For the final term of the school year, which began May 4, students will earn credit (which can be replaced by their highest grade from a previous term on the transcript) or no credit. Those who don’t get credit will be steered to online summer school or remediation in the fall, Thomas said.

“There will be no failing grade,” he added.

Worcester school officials also said they thought they needed to take a generous approach. More than 3,500 of its 25,000 students did not have Wi-Fi access when schools closed and the district took several weeks to distribute laptops.

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"We did not want penalize anybody for not having access or connectivity,'' said Superintendent Maureen Binienda.

Instead, most students will earn points — from zero to four — for the final stretch of the school year.

While several top-performing students critiqued the more lenient approaches, others said they appreciated the flexibility.

“I think a lot of students were really happy to see that we’re going to pass/fail,’’ said Astrid Umanzor, the senior class secretary at Revere High School, adding that the absence of grades makes it easier "to manage during this difficult time.”

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Despite the new grading policies, some Boston teachers say they worry that even an incomplete might be too harsh, depending on the student’s circumstances.


Grading will be fairly complex for students in grades six through 12. This year, the third and fourth terms, stretching from early February through the end of June, will be merged into one, said Matt Holzer, headmaster at the district’s Green Academy, who helped develop the grading guidelines.

The new third term grades will be based on a combination of students’ performance in school from Feb. 3 to March 16; online learning March 17 to May 1 (which will be weighed less heavily since it occurred before the district had a formal distance learning plan); and more formal remote learning in May and June, according to the school department’s remote learning plan.

Teachers can give students a pass, an incomplete, or a letter grade— including, potentially, an F. High school students still must meet credit requirements in all subject areas to graduate, although no students will be held back, Holzer said.

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The final grade is a weighted average of all three terms, although that grade cannot be lower than the grade a student had at the time of the shutdown, he added. So a student cannot be given an F solely based on performance in the spring.

Teachers say they are finding their own ways to follow the grading guidelines and want to err on the side of generosity considering the challenges many students face.

“I grade very lightly [these days],” said Maguire, the Latin Academy teacher. “I don’t fail a student if they didn’t quite get it.

Maguire has taught Latin at the school for the past 27 years. Before schools closed, his students were working on translating Julius Caesar’s reports to Rome. He has since lightened the workload, with students delving into the more relatable mythology of Daedalus and Icarus. This term, he will base grades on student assignments, quizzes, and a long-term project. No one will get an F, he said.

“I’m learning how to do this, too,” he said. "So I don’t take any of my faults and project it.”

Maguire’s colleague José Valenzuela teaches seventh-grade history to more than 100 students at Latin Academy and Advanced Placement human geography to about 30 juniors and seniors.

As of now, 11 of his students are on their way to an “incomplete” for the third term. Yet the only one of the 11 who might get an incomplete for the entire year is a student who had been failing class long before schools closed down.

Regardless of what grades are doled out, "next year, teachers are going to have a big job ahead of them to make sure that no students fall through the cracks,'' Valenzuela said.


Lea Serena, a second-grade teacher at Boston’s Mather Elementary School, said last month that she was agonizing over what to do about three students who have not been participating since schools closed. Usually, students who are absent for this long would be given an incomplete. But that didn’t feel quite right now, she said.

A parent of one of the missing students never used a computer. Another mother, a native of Cape Verde, barely speaks English. Serena, who is of Cape Verdean heritage, tried extensively to communicate with the woman, even enlisting her own mother’s translation help.

Following weeks of effort, an aide went to the mother’s house and helped her son sign on. Serena ran into the other two students in person last week when she was running errands — although she has yet to see them online.

After much deliberation, she has decided not to give out any “incompletes” this term.



Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.