No Right Answers: How Schools Are Grading Students During The Coronavirus

A teacher in Washington, D.C., holds virtual office hours at his apartment to help his sixth-grade students with assignments on April 7, 2020. (Photo: Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images)

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On April 13, high school math teacher Sonia Farassati went on a hunt for a motherlode of missing homework.

At the time, almost half of Farassati's students had failed to turn in at least three assignments — a rate way higher than normal, especially at a magnet school such as Kennedy High in Granada Hills.

So Farassati sent text messages to the parents of 57 students with missing work. In response, she said one parent offered an explanation for her son:

"His older sibling told him he doesn't need to do anything because they're going to pass regardless."

'HOW ARE WE GOING TO MOTIVATE THESE KIDS?'

Farassati got this message on the same day the Los Angeles Unified School District announced its new student grading policy: None of the district's 472,000 students will get an "F" this semester. No overall grade will drop lower than where it stood in March, when the coronavirus pandemic forced campuses to close.

"Students can work to improve their grades," LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said in a televised speech. "But we don't want to penalize those who may not have access to technology, or maybe experiencing difficulties at home."


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Most California colleges — both public and private — have already decided to accept "pass-fail" grades from classes disrupted by the pandemic. With that assurance, many school districts — including LAUSD — have opted to relax their grading policies, nodding to the uncertainty faced by both students and teachers.

Farassati, who's taught for 21 years, understands that this is a tough time. But she also wondered: by instituting a "no-fail" grading policy, did LAUSD effectively end her students' semester?

"A lot of teachers are concerned about this," she said. "How are we going to motivate these kids to get anything done?"

'I TAKE CARE OF MY BROTHER HERE'

On the other hand, Brent Smiley, a teacher at LAUSD's Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies, said grades are the last thing on many of his students' minds.

Smiley invited KPCC/LAist to log into a Zoom meeting of his eighth grade history class. After Smiley assigned the week's work, several of his students weighed in on LAUSD's new grading policy.

"Both of my parents are still working," said one eighth grader, "and I take care of my brother here... and there is..."

As the student spoke, her Zoom connection started to lag. Her words distorted and digitally frayed — and not for the first time, Smiley said. (We're withholding the names of Smiley's students to protect their privacy.)

"I'm suddenly coming to understand that her internet connectivity is shaky at best," Smiley observed.

Between shaky internet, caring for siblings, stressful home environments, unclear academic expectations and calamity in the world, Smiley said many of his students face too many barriers to meaningfully participate in distance learning.

"When the kids are in my classroom, I can level the playing field," Smiley added. "I can make sure that everyone at least has the same opportunity in the classroom. I can't do that when they're at home."

"Some of these kids are trapped," he said. "That's what the 'no-fail' [grading system] is about."

A gate is locked at Huntington Drive Elementary School, an L.A. Unified campus in northeast Los Angeles on April 22, 2020. The campus has been closed since March 13 due to the coronavirus. (Kyle Stokes/LAist)

THE DILEMMA

Grading students has always created dilemmas, said LAUSD Chief Academic Officer Alison Yoshimoto-Towery.

Even in normal times, scholars have argued that the traditional grading system locks in achievement gaps and subjects students to implicit bias.

During the pandemic, various districts are navigating the dilemma of grading in different ways:

  • Long Beach Unified elementary students will not receive report cards at all this semester. Middle and high school students will receive pass-fail grades.
  • Corona-Norco Unified students grades' can only improve from their March level — similar to LAUSD's hold-harmless policy.
  • Santa Ana Unified will likely revisit its grading policies soon. While details are still in the works, Superintendent Jerry Almendarez told students in a video update: "We don't want you stressing out about your grades."
  • On the other hand, San Bernardino City Unified has not changed its grading policies or practices, spokeswoman Linda Bardere said in an email.

LAUSD's Yoshimoto-Towery said all of these choices come with trade-offs.

"I can almost guarantee you," she recently said on KPCC's AirTalk, "that if we went with a 'fail' policy, we would have an equal number of people that would be questioning that."

STUDENTS WEIGH IN

Smiley's students understand the dilemma, too. As one of his eighth graders put it:

There are healthcare workers that are just trying to help us all out. [Their] kids don't have the chance to get their work done — and the workload is just a lot more in total than what it was when we went to school ...

At the same time, I think it's bad because ... the kids who don't even try are getting the credit.

"People shouldn't take it as a get-out-of-jail-free card," one of her classmates added.

Another student in Smiley's class said LAUSD's decision to hold grades harmless was particularly important:

If people who were doing their work earlier in the year and they get sick, or they aren't able to do it for some reason ... their grades won't go down.

Smiley agreed that this decision was important.

"To me, this is an insurance policy," Smiley said, "just to make sure nobody slips through the cracks."

A student comes with their parent to pick up food at the Hollenbeck Middle School Grab and Go Food Center. (Chava Sanchez/Laist)

'WE'LL FIX IT WHEN WE'RE BACK'

In mid-April, at around the same time Kennedy teacher Sonia Farassati was hounding parents, she also sent a long text message to her students. She pleaded with them to keep up in her math classes.

"It's not just the grade," she told them. "You need to learn these materials to be successful in the next math class.

"Even if you pass and get so-called A's and B's," she warned, "it's going to catch up to you very soon."

In the two weeks since, Farassati says many of her students have caught up on their work, cutting the rate of students with missing assignments in half. (No doubt part of the reason why: she's increased the portion of their grade tied to homework.)

Farassati also found some peace of mind in an email sent by her union. The message: Don't focus on things you can't control.

"Let's focus on teaching," the email said, "and if our students found out about the grading policy and choose to check out, then that is theirs and their parent's problem to deal with."

And if students do check out?

"We'll fix it in August," Smiley said. "When we get back, we'll fix it.

"We do this," he said. "We're teachers."