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Regular reader PK recently noted:

Hey Mike!

I just received notice today that grades K-8 in our NC county changed the grading system from A-F (60 was a D) and replaced it with P or W for Pass/withdraw, but basically no one fails or gets held back. They did this under the advisement of the NC board of education.

Even if the student does no work, but had a passing grade as of mid March, they will still get the P. Students that would have received an A and completed everything, will also only receive a P instead of the A to level the grading field. You do receive feedback if you actually turn in your assignment but no assignment grading.

This county always worked from school issued iPad’s so they were already prepared to do online schoolwork. I would love to know your thoughts on this, because I feel this is some socialist grading system that rewards the students that don’t bother and harms the ones that do.

When teachers left their classrooms for Spring Break, they had no idea the rest of the year would be denied them, nor did students and parents.  In effect, schools across the nation lost about ¼ of the school year.  This alone would be bad enough, but no one had the opportunity to plan for losing that much of the curriculum, for losing so much opportunity for building bigger, better brains.

Despite what some educrats are pushing, “online learning” is not remotely a substitute for classroom instruction.  Various computers like iPads, Chromebooks, etc. are merely tools.  They are not magic.  Nothing replaces the abilities of good teachers to inspire, inform, encourage and lead.  Nothing can replace the human interaction between students and students and teachers.  For all the drama, we need each other; we are inherently social animals.

The best “online” curriculum doesn’t hold a candle to in person instruction.  It’s certainly true there are some students that take their responsibility for their education seriously.  These kids will learn and progress regardless of their circumstances because they’re motivated to learn.  They see learning and improving themselves as the point of life, and need little, if any encouragement.  These are the kids that bring out the best in good teachers, and challenge less than good teachers.  Unfortunately, their numbers are small, and any system that depends on kids to take full responsibility for their educations, particularly when they are not in direct, daily contact with actual educators, is doomed to failure.

With this is mind, what about grades?  Keep in mind year long, two semester courses have lost ¼ of the curriculum, half a semester.  However, semester courses have lost ½ of their curriculum.  Is it possible to maintain normal expectations—normal grading standards—in the current situation?  Realizing whatever curriculum delivered online will be far less effective than in person curriculum, and must, of necessity, be less complete and rigorous, what can be done?

Some school districts issue various computer devices to kids.  Most don’t.  Many kids have computers at home and access to the Internet, but many do not.  What about cell phones?  If a kid has one, they have Internet access, right?  Maybe and in some places and times, and a cell phone screen is a poor way to access lessons.  Few kids are going to write a competent essay with their thumbs, and of course, math and science answers are hard to do, even impossible, with the resources of a cell phone.  And what of vocational, hands-on courses and physical education?

Many districts have tried to address this by preparing paper assignment packets for kids without Internet/computer access, but the logistics of copying, handing them out, taking them back in, disseminating them to teachers, etc., while also trying to maintain social distancing are nightmarish.  The universal experience is parents and kids might have tried to do it once, but thereafter, it was just too difficult.

Some school districts have financial deals with textbook companies for Internet text access.  Theoretically, kids can find any reading assignment online.  That’s theoretically, because the systems weren’t designed to suddenly accommodate many times the usual traffic, and many kids can’t access them at all, particularly if they didn’t remember their passwords, etc.  Most school districts don’t have such deals, so that method is impractical.

Let’s examine three kids: Johnny, Suzy and Tommy.  Johnny is an average student.  He’ll usually do assignments if he has the time in class and his teacher makes it clear he has no real choice, but without those factors, he’s not terribly interested.  He will generally put out enough effort to pass his classes, and a “C” is plenty good enough.

Suzy is a motivated student.  She will do the reading—in or out of class—and the assignments, often handing them in early.  She cares about her class ranking, and has planned her future.  She’s going to college, and wants to get into a good one.  She has Internet access at home, a computer, a cell phone, and is going to do her best on every assignment.

Tommy is another story.  He isn’t dumb, but he’s spectacularly unmotivated, and will do as little as possible under any circumstance.  He is constantly failing, or so nearly failing as to make little difference.  In class, he’ll occasionally do an assignment, but forget homework of any kind.  He may or may not have home Internet access, but it doesn’t really matter in his case, because he’s not going to do anything anyway.

This is reality under normal circumstances.  Some few kids are excellent students, most are average or a bit on both sides of average, and some are Tommys.  So how do schools adapt to the new reality?

It’s impossible to maintain usual standards, not only in terms of the number of assignments, but their rigor.  If a student doesn’t turn in an assignment, is that because they didn’t try?  Do they have a computer and Internet access?  Did they just miss the assignment?  Did they have trouble logging on to Google Classroom, or was it running so slowly they gave up?  Did they do a paper packet, and it’s still stuck in the system somewhere?  How does a teacher know any of this if they can’t get in touch with that student?  No internet access, no e-mail.  Some kids don’t have cell phones, or landline phones in their homes.  How do we know any given student actually did any given assignment electronically submitted with their name?  How do we hold kids to account when we have little or no control over the circumstances?

So most schools have adopted a form of pass/fail.  If a student hands in an assignment, it’s 100.  If they do badly, or don’t hand one in: 69.  That, considering the circumstances, is realistic, but far from good. Everyone knows that; no one is happy about it.  The pass/fail system began after Spring Break, so the grades kids earned prior to then are added to produce a final grade.

What this means is Suzy is golden.  She’s going to continue to do her work, and every one of few grades she gets from Spring Break forward is going to be 100, which is pretty much what she would have gotten anyway.  Johnny is going to keep an eye on his grade average, and do only what is necessary to pass at the end of the year.  For many kids, this will mean pretty much doing nothing, which is where Tommy comes in.  Everyone knows that; no one is happy about it.  He was failing before Spring Break, he’s going to continue to fail after Spring Break, but the irony is, he’s probably going to pass the year.

The entire system, you see gentle readers, has broken down.  This really is unprecedented.  Never have Americans knowingly destroyed their economy like this, and the 2019-2020 school year is just another casualty.  The ultimate question is whether it’s fair—realistic–to hold kids to the same standards when we know most are not going to have the opportunity to learn as much as they could and should, nor are they going to take advantage of what opportunity they have.  It’s not the teacher’s fault.  It’s not the parent’s fault.  It’s not the kid’s fault.  Oh sure, kids could have worked harder and done everything possible to learn, but we have no idea how things are going for any one of them at home just now, and kids are kids, which is why we have them in school where adult supervision and inspiration can make a great deal of difference.

Some kids are going to do nothing and pass anyway, move on to the next grade.  We’ll sort out the difference next school year, adapt, adjust, and life goes on.  For a year, perhaps more, curriculum will be altered to try to catch kids up.  But for now, most schools are doing the best they can, knowing they cannot possibly live up to their usual standards.  In terms of averages, class ranking, it’s going to be as though 2019-2020 existed, but didn’t really count.  Senior class ranks will be determined based on pre-Spring Break accomplishment.  Graduation ceremonies will be…different.

Some kids will get away with passing for doing little or nothing.  Such is life; such is reality. Most will do less, but still do something, and pass.  Some, like Suzy will get the most from any situation, but any harm done will be self-harm.  It is ever true that all the best teacher can do is provide the best educational opportunity their abilities and resources allow.  It’s up to the individual student—and their parents—to take advantage of that opportunity.

None of this prevents kids and their parents from working on their own to further their kid’s educations.  There is a world of reading, of knowledge, out there waiting for inquiring young minds.  But kids are kids…