No student should get an F grade this quarter as learning shifts with the coronavirus, Utah superintendent says

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Murray High School on Wednesday, April 15, 2020.

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The state superintendent is asking that no student be given an F grade this quarter as they adjust to schools being closed and trying to learn remotely during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sydnee Dickson, who oversees instruction at Utah’s public K-12 schools, made the recommendation during a state Board of Education meeting Thursday. Districts and charters ultimately have the jurisdiction over their own grading, but she encouraged them to be lenient.

“Let’s not worry about every assignment,” she said. “Let’s lighten up our policies. There are a variety of ways to show that students are on track and proficient.”

In addition to not failing any students, Dickson is urging districts to use a pass/incomplete system rather than a pass/fail for grading. Students who do enough work can get a “pass” instead of a letter grade. Those who don’t will be given an “incomplete.” That’s not the same as an F. Instead, a student won’t get credit for the course — until they make up the work. And she strongly believes schools should offer students every opportunity to complete assignments.

The circumstances of closing schools and shifting to online learning have been challenging. Some students haven’t been able to log on for class yet, she said, and school districts are still trying to get laptops and internet hotspots out to all who need them.

Additionally, some students are having to work extra hours to help their families financially. Others are dealing with mental health concerns. A few are struggling to get enough food outside of the classroom. And Dickson worries the shift to remote learning could hurt minority students the most.

Graduating seniors are also dealing with the disappointment of having virtual ceremonies instead of a large, in-person celebration.

All of that, Dickson said, is a lot to handle. And classwork won’t always be the first priority for all students.

“Don’t give out busy work,” she added. “Just give students what they need and don’t try to replicate a typical school day.”

Her administration has drafted a four-page guide for schools in responding to the crisis specifically dealing with grading and graduation. In it, she also calls for districts and charters to work to make sure that students who were on track to graduate before the school closures aren’t blocked because of the difficulties in this final quarter.

“The important goal,” it says, “is for schools to work on innovative and flexible methods to finish out the school year.”

Dickson acknowledged that a pass/incomplete system might raise some issues. But she said during the meeting Thursday that she has talked to some Utah colleges, specifically, and they are willing to accommodate and accept transcripts with those marks.

It remains to be seen, though, how that could affect other scholarships, specifically those offered by private entities. Some institutions don’t award credit for a “pass” mark and that could potentially change a student’s GPA and eligibility. Dickson assured, though, that will not have an impact on those applying for the state awarded Regent’s and New Century scholarships. Federal financial aid, too, won’t be affected.

The “tough nut to crack,” she said, is the NCAA, which governs college athletics. Currently, the association counts a “pass” as a D grade, which could harm a student’s chance at a sports scholarship or even a spot on the team.

If a district or charter doesn’t want to use that system, Dickson recommends as a “best practice” allowing a student to keep the grade they had before schools in the state were closed in March and let them increase it by demonstrating increased aptitude.

“Decreasing a student’s grade, without fully understanding each student’s ability to access the learning resource or having control over their circumstances, is not recommended,” she said.

Schools should also grade based on overall competency rather than assigning percentages on every right or wrong answer. Any gaps in learning, she hopes, can be addressed over the summer. And the state has already waived the requirement for standardized testing, including the annual Utah civics exam.

Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah Board of Education, said because grading authority belongs not to the state but rather individual districts and charters, Dickson can only offer recommendations. “This is guidance, not gospel,” he said.

Utah schools were first closed by Gov. Gary Herbert on March 16. That order has since been extended to last through the end of the academic year. The hope is that classes will resume again in the fall.