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State education head issues guidance on high school grades

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Chris Reykdal

Reykdal

The pass-fail option for grading high school students in Washington during the COVID-19 pandemic was taken off the table Tuesday by state education chief Chris Reykdal.

In the “Student Learning and Grading Guidance” report issued by the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, Reykdal said he’s decided to eliminate the pass-fail model “as a matter of state policy.”

The concept is neither equitable nor reflective of student learning, and there’s no guarantee it won’t harm students in the long run, Reykdal said.

Since Gov. Jay Inslee ordered closure of school buildings in March as one measure to lessen the reach of the cornonavirus, each of Washington’s 297 districts has grappled with how to continue educating kids. Like districts in Walla Walla Valley, most school officials have settled on models of paper, digital formats or a combination of both, whatever is best suited for their students and communities.

How to grade the resulting school work, however, is still a question mark for educators across the state.

On Monday, for example, the Seattle School Board voted to give all high school students either As or incomplete grades for the spring 2020 semester as a way to mitigate the disparities of remote learning, the Seattle Times reported.

Although every school district has historically had control to decide such matters, state law provides OSPI significant legal authority to create statewide consistency and accountability, Reykdal said, especially when it comes to high school grading.

Reykdal said his office is using the core principles of compassion, communication and common sense to determine statewide student learning and grading guidance as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic ripples outward.

Public education will continue to evolve to meet the needs of families and children, Reykdal said.

The OSPI grading framework was designed in collaboration with experts around the state and will create more consistency in Washington. Individual school districts will still decide which letter grade system to use. However, “Fs” will not be an option.

Board members of Walla Walla Public Schools were presented with Superintendent Wade Smith’s thoughts about the grading of high school work here.

OSPI’s recommendations are not finalized, Smith said after Tuesday’s school board meeting, noting the district is early in the process of lining up plans with state guidance.

Today, Smith released notice that for high school courses, students will continue to be graded on an A-D scale. Failing grades must be replaced with an incomplete, allowing students to recover credit at a later date.

There are concerns that alternative approaches to grading can negatively impact scholarships, military recruiting, college athletics and access to some colleges and universities, Smith said.

OSPI has already told districts they are free to establish a grading model for elementary grades. In Walla Walla, rather than use traditional number grades, parents will be given reports on the progress of their children that discuss engagement in school work, district officials said.

Similar to high school grading criteria, Garrison and Pioneer middle schools students will continue to receive traditional grades; some might be assigned summer school or additional fall learning if their distance learning participation is not satisfactory, Smith said.

In his guidance report, Reykdal said that with Inslee’s order that school buildings remain closed, education won’t happen in the same way or at the same pace. School work must be narrowed down to skills and knowledge essential for success in the next grade or course.

Without a vaccine for the coronavirus, things might look much the same at the beginning of the next school year, he said.

Grading practices on student efforts must reflect the reality of the situation, and “cause no harm to students,” based on principles of equity, fairness and accuracy, he said, adding that in the global crisis, “teachers are overwhelmed, parents and guardians are overwhelmed,and many of our students are overwhelmed.”

That changes educational priorities, Reykdal said. Getting through every assignment cannot be at the top.

Determining what students earn in grades under such circumstances needs to be based in equity, Smith told board members.

He calls it “grading with grace,” and said that while the district expects students to commit to school work, there are reasons why that will be harder in some homes than in others.

Teachers will need to take each student’s variables into account when deciding on a grade, Smith said.

The district is in the process of handing out more laptops to help families who perhaps didn’t initially anticipate they would need their home computers for their own work during the day.

The Walla Walla School District has had a jump on many other areas of the state by having a learning-at-home outline ready nearly immediately in the crisis. Smith credits that with the picture he sees now — more families are picking up packets of printed school work and more are asking for extra work to take home.

Overall 90% of WWPS students are engaging with their teachers as expected, far above the 50% he’s recently heard from others in education around the state, Smith told board members.

There is much work to be done to reach the end of this school year, including finalizing graduation plans, possible summer school — if that’s allowed by the state — and preparing for the coming budget “storms,” Smith said Tuesday evening.

To learn more about the Office of Superintendent of Instruction’s grading guide for school districts, go to ubne.ws/3eBSJlD.

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Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 509-526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.