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Grading during a closure: Schools wrestle with grading in an online learning environment


SCALES MOUND–Area schools have been dealt a difficult hand since schools shut their brick and mortar buildings on March 17. Since then, schools have scrambled for ways in which they can accurately assess the growth of their students and find ways to continue the education of the students away from the classroom.

“We made the decision for grades 7-12 that we would be ready to go into e-learning,” said Darren Sirianni, junior high and high school principal at East Dubuque. “We did not have a spring break. Our only days we planned to be off were around Easter. We prepared ourselves on that Monday (March 16) and met with students and as a staff and had time to prepare.”

Many schools were in a similar situation as East Dubuque with a lack of time between the announcement of school closures and the implementation of a remote learning plan.

“We planned a professional development day shortly after we heard rumors of the potential for schools to be closed for a limited time,” said Dr. Shawn Teske, superintendent at Warren. “Nobody anticipated what followed. It wasn’t until that week when Gov. Pritzker announced it that it seemed like it was possible.”

Teske said his staff has taken charge of the e-learning process and have been able to adapt to the changing landscape of education.

“They reinvented the wheel,” said Teske. “Everything was flipped upside down on how they teach. It is a credit to what they were able to do and a credit to the parents.”

One of the pieces to the education system was how students would be graded during their time away from school and how that could be done without having a negative impact on the students.

According to ISBE’s external communications director Max Weiss, ISBE convened an advisory group of more than 60 educators and created remote learning recommendations for Illinois schools.

“The overarching recommendation on grading is to ensure no educational harm to any child,” said Weiss. “For instance, schools are encouraged to adopt grading models of pass or incomplete and to give students the opportunity to make up content as needed once on-site learning resumes.”

“The one directive that has come from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), the Illinois Principals’ Association and the Regional Office of Education is that we are to do no educational harm to students during this crisis,” said Dr. Matt Wiederholt, third-12th grade principal at Scales Mound School. “We feel if we were to lower a student’s grade, we see that as doing educational harm.”

“The state mandated that we can do no educational harm to the students during this e-learning time,” said Colleen Fox, superintendent and elementary principal at Stockton. “The third quarter stands and depending on the quantity and quality of work, our students will receive either a pass or an incomplete. That third quarter grade could be maintained or improved based on the quality of a student’s work.”

“ISBE’s recommendation is that grades may only increase students’ academic standing,” said Weiss. “Schools should view grades during this time as an opportunity for feedback and communication to support learning, not as an instrument for compliance.”

According to ISBE’s Remote Learning Recommendations document, “all students should have the opportunity to redo, make up, or try again to complete, show progress or attempt to complete work assigned prior to remote learning.”

Weiss said the reason for the “no educational harm” piece to ISBE’s grading plan was due to the scary situation that students cannot control.

“They may be dealing with physical or mental struggles,” said Weiss. “They may be serving as caregivers or having to work to help support their families because their parents have lost their jobs.”

Stockton along with many districts across the region, has adopted the same mantra when it comes to assessing grades for the final quarter of the school year.

“I think (area districts) are all trying to stay consistent,” said Fox. “Nothing will replace face-to-face learning and we are trying to do the best we can to continue the student’s education.”

“It would have been a lot easier if the state would have put out one plan for all,” said Beth Murphy, Galena High School principal. “However, every district is different which is why we see so many different plans.”

The reasoning behind the fourth quarter decision deals with the equity of learning for many districts as students are faced with different challenges at home than others whether it be parental support, access to internet or access to personal devices.

“In theory, we aren’t lowering grades because every home dynamic is different,” said Wiederholt. “We are trying not to increase the amount of stress on students in an already stressful situation.”

Each district has devised its own plans, with many basing their recommendations on ISBE guidance and feedback from other districts across the state.

“I have a printout of different plans and we had been trying to tie it into a local decision,” said Weiderholt. “We have standardized the process and customized the delivery.”

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Scales Mound has utilized a system for grades 4-12 where a student’s third quarter grade will remain as is and that it will only be kept the same or raised based on work completed during the online learning component.

Students at Scales Mound are expected to complete a minimum of 65 percent of class meetings and work assigned by the teacher. If a student fails to complete the minimum requirement, the second semester grade will be calculated as the third quarter grade.

East Dubuque is requiring that 80 percent of the work be completed in order for a student to earn a “pass” for the grade. If 80 percent of the work is not completed, the student will receive an incomplete and will be expected to make up the work during the summer or when the district returns to school after summer break.

“We really didn’t have a down time,” said Sirianni. “We felt good about the students continuing, and the small number of students that didn’t have access to internet, we were able to provide them with access through working with a variety of companies. Those students that didn’t have devices, we provided devices for them.”

Sirianni said East Dubuque wasn’t comfortable with just sitting back during the process but thought students should be engaged.

“The staff stepped up above and beyond on ways they could support the students,” said Sirianni. “We really didn’t feel it was in our best interest to give students a free pass.”

“We are not trying to penalize kids,” said East Dubuque Superintendent TJ Potts. “We are trying to keep them engaged and moving forward. The accountability piece is to just attend class virtually or do the work assigned.”

Stockton schools, along with other schools, are working on ways of continuing student engagement.

Fox said the main message the district is sending to students and families is to participate and to be involved.

“We are trying to encourage everyone to engage as much as we can,” said Fox. “We know we have students with internet issues and are working to get them paper packets or internet hotspots. Each week we check in with families to see what they need.”

Warren School District is similar to many of the districts and stated in a document that students will be assigned grades as normal in the fourth quarter, but the grade can only positively impact the student’s grade. If a student’s fourth quarter grade is higher, his or her semester grade would be an average of those two scores. If a student’s fourth quarter grade is lower and the student has completed the majority of work with a passing score, the student will receive a “P” for pass for the fourth quarter. The third quarter grade would then be the semester grade.

Students who don’t engage in e-learning at Warren will earn an incomplete and will be assigned to a 30-minute Response to Intervention (RtI) period for the fall semester to make up the work and build on the skills that they did not complete during the e-learning session.

“We are doing all we can to help them learn and to continue their education,” said Teske.

Galena created a remote learning transition team. Murphy invited teacher representatives from three core areas and one representative from special education to work on it.

“We read the recommendations and incorporated suggestions that fit our needs. We all agreed that we wanted to have some teeth in the plan so that students would engage,” said Murphy. “That is how the 60 percent proficiency value came about.”

Murphy said that the team also felt that traditional learning was not equivalent to remote learning which is why they decided to make the remote learning percentage 20 percent of the semester grade.

At the end of remote learning, students who exhibit 60 percent proficiency or above in remote learning will be able to choose to either leave the assigned grade as is and have the grade calculated into the GPA or receive a “Pass” which will not be calculated into the GPA but will count as satisfactory course completion.

“The state gave local districts the ability to decide how it would look,” said Murphy. “Our teachers felt that if they established high remote learning expectations, our students would rise to the occasion. At this time, our awesome students are proving that is true.”

Murphy, along with other district representatives in the region, said the district will reflect on what went well and what needs to be improved in case extended remote learning has to be done again.

In Wisconsin, schools are having to deal with the same problems as their cohorts in Illinois as Gov. Tony Evers also closed the schools for the remainder of the school year.

Cynthia Lacey, principal of Southwestern Middle and High School said that due to the fact the district’s third quarter ended on March 27, after the initial school closure, students that still had incomplete work for the third quarter that they would like to turn in must email their teacher to request an incomplete grade for the third quarter. The students will then have until April 30 to complete the work once the incomplete is requested. The third quarter will be worth 60 percent of the second semester grade.

The fourth quarter grade at Southwestern will be represented by a letter grade and a corresponding percentage earned by the student through the work that they complete. The fourth quarter will be worth 40 percent of the semester grade.

Lacey said no F will be given out for second semester, but only a NP (no pass) and that will not affect a student’s grade point average. If an NP is received by a student, they may need to take the required class again.