WXXI AM News

Pandemic Academics: How can students be fairly graded while learning at home?

May 20, 2020

Schools were abruptly closed in mid-March as the coronavirus crisis reached local communities. In the second part of a WXXI News series on the impacts of the pandemic on education, we look at how academic performance is being evaluated, with so many variables at play.

 

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If the sudden shift to remote learning was an adjustment for students, then it was jarring for educators.

"It was like putting teachers on a very steep slide and just pushing them off," said Jennifer Pacatte, a social studies teacher at Brighton High School.

She said the first few weeks were spent just making sure students had their basic needs met such as access to food and Wi-Fi. Then, teachers came up with common practices and expectations they are striving to meet.  The first goal was to "do no harm."

"Ultimately, we can't penalize students for not being able to access and learn if they don't have the equal capacity to do that," Pacatte explained. "But, we also were really kind of careful to acknowledge that we have hundreds of students who have the luxury and the privilege of having very stable families with income and access and support, and they were yearning for learning, so we couldn't take away their motivation, either."

The concern about equity is something on the minds of teachers and school administrators across the region. Robert Snyder, principal at School 45 in Rochester, said the pandemic has only amplified the problem.

"It's bigger than our district just being able to provide the kids a laptop," Snyder said. "It's why does this family just not have access to free Wi-Fi in today's age, or access to technology in today's age?"

Because the playing field is in no way level for students learning at home, many local schools are reevaluating the way they handle grades and academic advancement.

In a letter to families in the Rochester City School District, Deputy Superintendent Lynda Quick said final grades for students in grades 6 through 12 will be based on a holistic review of a student's progress before and after remote learning. Students who receive a final grade of incomplete will be recommended for summer school.

Students in kindergarten through fifth grade will receive a grade of either "pass" or "non-applicable," if their teacher feels they don't have enough information to assess whether they have met a certain standard.

At Geneva High School, math teacher Renee Williams said she will be flexible with grading.  She said she's more interested in whether a student has mastered their work than simply completed it.

"I'm more in a mastery-based mode where, as long as students show that they've learned it based on a certain criteria, then their grade would reflect that, whether they learned it today, next week, or five weeks from now," Williams said.

Sometimes, she said, a student can convince her that they understand a lesson during a one-on-one Zoom call; typically, she would get a sense of their progress in the classroom.

"It's difficult to gauge that remotely where kids are working more independently online, not necessarily in front of you," said Williams.

Edward Foote, principal at Penn Yan Elementary School, said the decision whether to hold students back or advance them to the next grade is typically made on the local level, but this year, he hopes there can be a larger conversation about this so there is a uniform approach across districts.

Foote, like others, believes equity is a central part of this.

"If a student physically just doesn't have the capability of accessing online learning and digital content based on where they live and we use that as a criteria for promotion to the next grade level, that's not right," he said.

Similar to the situation in the Rochester City School District, internet access is not a given for families in rural Penn Yan, Foote noted.

"Within our surveying, parents have reported roughly about 80 percent access to even the internet," Foote said. "But that's sometimes not (even) reliable as well as far as how strong their connection is."

What will students lose academically after being out of the classroom for three months and possibly indefinitely? We'll take a closer look at that tomorrow in part three of this series.