The email to students from a Seattle high-school teacher Monday summed up the aimless mood in the city’s public schools.
“Hello All, I hope you had a good spring break! (I’m not sure what we were breaking from),” the teacher wrote, sardonically.
Also Monday — and maybe not coincidentally — the Seattle School Board did the most Seattle thing ever: It voted that every grade this spring would be an ‘A.’
High-schoolers could also theoretically get an I, for incomplete. But district officials said those wouldn’t be handed out much, if at all, and wouldn’t count in grade-point averages in any case.
“Grading has historically rewarded those students who experience privilege, and penalized others,” said Seattle schools Superintendent Denise Juneau — signaling that a more permanent relaxing of grading scales may be in Seattle’s future.
Remember the old Lake Wobegon joke, about it being a place where “all the children are above average?” It’s finally coming numerically true in Seattle.
The issue of what to do about school grading during the coronavirus shutdown is by no means simple. There is no right answer, as many school-board members lamented during a special meeting Monday. A main goal, they correctly noted, should be that no kids get punished by a pandemic shutdown that is definitely not their fault.
One way to achieve that would be to give high-schoolers only “P” grades, for pass. And no failing grades. This way all grade-point averages would remain unchanged.
But giving everyone a 4.0 isn’t “do no harm,” it’s handing out candy. It gooses Seattle GPAs for no reason, at least compared with peers in other school districts — most of which are adopting pass/no-credit arrangements. It renders all Seattle GPAs effectively meaningless going ahead.
“This proposal makes a mockery of the grading system and will have negative implications for college admissions,” one parent wrote to the school board before Monday’s vote. “It sends a signal to all admissions officers that Seattle Public Schools is willing to artificially inflate student grades.”
A few board members asked Monday whether district staff had checked with colleges about this, and the staff answered “no,” they had not. But then the board backed the new policy anyway, 5-2, turning down a request from board member Leslie Harris to postpone it to explore the concerns.
Why the rush to give everyone A’s? Well … to me the answer may have been provided in the next day’s Seattle Times, in a story pointing out how Seattle schools are lagging well behind most other districts in providing any coherent online learning.
“Why Seattle kids were among the last in the region to start receiving laptops,” read the headline. It detailed how the district was unprepared for the coronavirus shutdown because it had dithered for years in spending millions in taxpayer-approved funds for technology upgrades.
“By the end of last week, Seattle Public Schools, with about 52,000 students, had passed out 1,000 of its own laptops. Highline Public Schools, its neighbor to the south teaching about 20,000, gave out 12,000,” the article reported.
Bureaucratic bungling is only part of the story. The district also just isn’t into it. Digital education may widen inequities, they have argued, so they’d rather not try it at all. Superintendent Juneau made this clear from the start, nearly six weeks ago when schools first closed, when she said “we cannot, in equitable terms, provide online learning for our students.”
So now we’ve ended up sort of half-doing it. Teachers are posting assignments and some, to their credit, have fired up complete Zoom classes. But without required work, many students have ghosted.
“They continue to tell us not to grade, not to give required assignments, not to take attendance,” one high-school teacher wrote to me. “Parents are in a total fog over the inconsistencies and lack of information from the district.”
Some other districts seem more on it. Los Angeles schools, for example, have come up with a plan in which the lowest your grades can be are whatever they were when physical school closed in March. But to keep some motivation going, grades can be improved from that floor by doing assignments and tests, either online or off.
On Monday down there, administrators reported that 97.5 percent of LA public high-school students have at least logged into online learning platforms. In Seattle, only 71.5 percent have made the attempt, our district reported.
I know this is not in the idealistic spirit of our happy new grading scheme. But that sure looks like a C- for Seattle to me.