Grading Remotely: How Do You Hold Kids Harmless While Also Trying To Motivate?

Chicago has adopted a tougher approach, sparking a debate about whether now is the time to worry if students are on track academically.

Chicago Public Schools students Devonté Dansberry Jr., 3rd grade, and Demontrae Dansberry, pre-K, do school assignments from home during the coronavirus school shutdown. Courtesy of Rovonna Baldwin
Chicago Public Schools students Devonté Dansberry Jr., 3rd grade, and Demontrae Dansberry, pre-K, do school assignments from home during the coronavirus school shutdown. Courtesy of Rovonna Baldwin

Grading Remotely: How Do You Hold Kids Harmless While Also Trying To Motivate?

Chicago has adopted a tougher approach, sparking a debate about whether now is the time to worry if students are on track academically.

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When Gov. JB Pritzker announced that in-person classes were done for the year, he repeated the state’s recommendation that student grades shouldn’t suffer as a result of the shutdown. Chicago-area schools have embraced the advice, adopting grading policies that aim to hold students harmless for circumstances far outside their control.

But now that schools are deep into remote learning, some are struggling to strike a balance – between supporting students but also finding ways to push students to do their work so they don’t fall too far behind.

Chicago’s approach

Take Chicago Public Schools. Last week, the school district announced a new grading policy that adopts the controversial position that grades now should be used to motivate students as well as ensure teachers are assigning work and holding students accountable.

Already, teachers and students have come out against it, including a group calling itself Chi Student Pandemic Response. They argue many students and families are stressed, are having trouble accessing online lessons and can’t worry about grades.

Under the CPS policy, the only way students can improve or maintain a grade from before the shutdown is by logging online for remote learning, doing the assignments and doing them well. If a student performs worse during the shutdown, they can’t get a letter grade for the fourth quarter. They can only get a “pass.” Final grades for elementary students who get a pass will be the average of grades from the first three quarters. For high school, students will only get a letter grade for second semester if their cumulative grade matches or bests their third quarter grade. Otherwise they get a pass, which will not affect their GPA.

Many other schools are more strictly following the state recommendation that any work assigned during the pandemic can only improve a student’s overall grade

Chicago, however, is also saying students can’t fail or be held back, joining many other districts that say students should be given an incomplete instead. For Chicago elementary students that means summer school. High school students will have to make up the credit. The district is making plans to offer in-person summer school, if possible. Otherwise, it will offer summer school remotely. 

School district leaders argue their approach is needed to ensure learning continues.

“We want teachers to continue teaching, we want students to continue learning so that to the best of our ability, as much as possible, we can mitigate learning loss that comes from students not having seat time,” said LaTanya McDade, chief education officer for CPS.

There are skills and knowledge, she added, that students need to go onto the next grade, college and life. McDade also noted that the school district has distributed more than 100,000 computers to students to take part in remote learning. More are coming and CPS officials say they will be able to get computers to all 115,000 students they estimate need them.

But the school district’s new policy is being condemned by some teachers and students who say it emphasizes grades at a time when families are under stress. In a statement, the Chicago Teachers Union said the policy “fell short.”

The union is especially upset that students can only raise their grades if they engage in online learning. If they complete paper assignments received from their school, they will get a pass, not a letter grade.

“It’s a half-measure, and the last thing our children in communities like North Lawndale, Chatham, Little Village and Englewood need right now are more half-measures,” wrote CTU President Jesse Sharkey.

Hilario Dominguez, a teacher at Cooper Elementary School in Pilsen, added that remote online learning is a privilege, not only requiring internet connection, but a safe, quiet space to work and often parents who can help. “It is highly inequitable and highly unfair,” he said.

The union and some teachers wanted the school district to allow students to take classes either as pass/fail or credit/no credit or to opt in for a grade.

But school district leaders feared that students would do the bare minimum to pass – and also some teachers wouldn’t put a lot of work into their classes.

Femi S. Skanes, principal of Morgan Park High School on the Far Southwest Side, said she wanted a grading policy that demanded students be engaged.

“We still have [many] weeks left of school,” she said, referring to CPS’ June 18 end date, which is later than most school districts. “That is a significant amount of time. I did not feel comfortable saying let’s let 30 percent of the school year go by the wayside.”

Phil Cantor, a science teacher at North Grand High School in Humboldt Park, said he is not overly worried about students who aren’t engaging now. Teachers know how to help students who come into classes at different levels and can do that again come fall if necessary, he said

“I think the idea is that we have to be lenient and compassionate,” Cantor said. “We are trying to not let it hurt any kids. Are there kids who may take advantage of that or see it as a vacation? Yes. But, that is the price we are willing to pay because we don’t want to harm kids.”

Suburban schools

In the Chicago suburbs, many districts are taking the “hold harmless” approach advocated by the state that any work graded during the pandemic can only improve a student’s overall grade.

But that might look a little different for each school.

Fifth grade teacher Rebecca Gamboa said her district, Lombard Elementary School District 44, is focusing on trying to keep kids engaged.

“How do we balance knowing that what we’re really trying to do is support our students and our families through this difficult time,” said Gamboa. “But still give some feedback on how the children are doing?”

Her district normally doesn’t give letter grades and instead gives written feedback, which she says is more important now that in-person school is canceled and they have less time to interact. She’s reaching out to kids who don’t turn in their work to find out if something is happening at home and if she can help. Gamboa said there will certainly be gaps in learning, and next year will look very different.

“We’re going to have to back up a little bit, and we may not be able to start with the first unit of the 5th grade math textbook,” she said.

Many suburban school districts, like U-46, a preK-12 school district in Elgin, are also taking the state’s recommendation for grading but they are sticking with letter grades A through D.

So while a student’s overall grade can’t drop below what they had before the pandemic, they can move up for example, from a B to an A. Schools like Oak Park and River Forest High School are following this model.

This could motivate kids to do their work. But if a student already has high grades, some parents say kids don’t have much incentive to complete all their assignments.

One backstop is if students do little or no work, they could get an incomplete, like in Chicago. Most schools, including competitive New Trier High School in Winnetka, are not giving Fs.

“Many of our students might have additional challenges that could make it difficult to always engage and attend the way we want them to with online learning,” said Suzanne Johnson, U-46 deputy superintendent for instruction.

Credits are especially important for high school students to graduate. Johnson said in previous years, the district would have only a small number of students receiving an incomplete. They would work with them to earn the credit, which may have included a summer school option.

But this school year may result in significantly more students who receive incomplete credits. And there will likely be a lot of learning kids miss out on for their grade level. Johnson said the district is still tackling these issues.

“It will push us to change how we process these situations, whether it’s through something that looks like a traditional summer school, online opportunities, small tutorials,” she said.

Johnson said those contingency plans are pending until there’s a firm date for when school buildings can reopen.

Nancy Latham runs the Council on Teacher Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She said the inequities in education are more obvious now, during the pandemic, than ever before. She said grading can’t be done fairly in the traditional way, especially during the pandemic, and it needs to be more individualized.

“I think it’s going to change the way we look at assessment, and the way [students] grow academically in an area,” she said “As opposed to ‘here’s a milestone everybody has to hit, and everybody has to hit it this way in order to achieve a B.’”

Latham hopes an individualized approach will follow everyone back into the classroom.

Sarah Karp and Susie An cover education for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter @WBEZeducation, @sskedreporter.and @soosieon.

This story was updated to include how final grades will be calculated for Chicago Public Schools students.