April 28, 2020 by Carol Britton Meyer
Hingham High School Principal Rick Swanson considered hundreds of emails from students and parents and sought input from teachers, administrators, and other interested parties before crafting a grading policy that applies to Hingham High students for this unique school year that he felt was fair and equitable to all students. The proposal is based on a “credit” or “no credit” system instead of regular letter grades for the last part of this school year.
Swanson's preliminary recommendation, presented to the school committee last night via a teleconference meeting, takes into consideration work done in school before Gov. Charlie Baker ordered the temporary closing of all schools in mid-March -- a directive that was recently extended for the second time through the end of the school year -- as well as work accomplished by students during this time of home-schooling.
Supt. of Schools Paul Austin prefaced Swanson's delivery of the proposed plan by explaining that the opinions expressed in the emails ran the gamut, from no changes to the current grading system to a credit/no credit system. "I'm confident that whatever Rick Swanson puts forth will be with the best interests of the students in mind," he said.
While this is "far from the most important issue confronting us right now [during this pandemic], it has generated a great deal of tension and controversy," Swanson said. "It's been a good process to this point, and we're close to a decision." The proposal will again be included on the school committee's agenda -- next Monday, May 4.
Finalizing the details
In keeping with the district’s ongoing commitment to "prioritizing the social-emotional well-being of its students, promoting equity, and holding all students harmless from the impact of school closure," Swanson proposed the following approach to second-semester grades at HHS. "At this point, the plan should be considered tentative, as we are now still finalizing the details. I expect the plan to be formalized at some point later this week," he said.
The second semester, which typically includes two terms (third and fourth) and final exams, would now include only one extra-long third term that began on January 27 and would continue through the end of the school year.
If Swanson's proposal is approved by the school committee, "final exams will be canceled," he said. “'Enrichment activities' completed between the closing of school (March 13) and the launch of “remote learning” (April 6) will remain ungraded and have no impact on students’ academic record."
All work completed since April 6 would continue to earn the designation of “credit” or “no credit” instead of regular letter grades. Students who earn “credit” for third term would be assigned a score of 100 percent while those who earn “no credit” would be assigned a score of 60 percent, which Swanson pointed out is actually a passing grade. These third-term scores would be factored into the year-end grade according to the following formula: Term 1 = 35 percent; Term 2 = 35 percent; mid-year exam = 10 percent; and Term 3, 20 percent.
For half-year courses that began on January 27, the final grade would be “credit” or “no credit” and would not be factored into the calculation of grade point average.
Other school districts' policies considered
Swanson said he arrived at this proposal after reviewing the policies developed in other school districts, seeking input from the high school’s leadership team, meeting with the HHS School Council, and considering the feedback provided by many others (students, parents, and teachers) in the community. "I believe the program outlined above will serve the interests of our students in the best and fairest way possible," he said.
Although many students and parents asked for the opportunity to keep third-term averages as of March 12 (the last day before school closed), Swanson said he believes that "keeping such a random and arbitrary snapshot would impede our determination to maintain fairness."
He gave as an example a student who might have attended a field trip on March 12 and missed a history test, who would not be able to regain that lost opportunity. "Similarly, students in one section of a science course may have completed a major lab project on March 12, whereas students in a different section were planning to complete it the next day," Swanson said. "Thus, students did not have an equal opportunity to prove themselves during the term. This imperfect outcome cannot be undone."
Opportunity to reclaim earlier gains
For those students who might have felt cheated by losing good grades from earlier in the term, the 100 perfect score for "credit" would allow them to reclaim those gains," Swanson said. "And while assigning a score of 100 percent to a 'credit' designation will obviously inflate many students’ year-end grades, that boost will at least be nondiscriminatory and universally available to all students.
"No student who earns 'credit' for third term will see his/her average suffer as a result of school closure," he continued. "To the contrary, all students will be held harmless for the challenges posed by this unprecedented national emergency. If we can accomplish that with this plan, we will have achieved something we can all feel good about."
Swanson explained that the proposal, "is not an aberration. Other neighboring schools have taken similar paths," he said. "Under this [grading policy] all students will be held harmless in the midst of the greatest public health emergency in a century. All students will have an equal chance to make gains. I hope this plan will gain the support of the school committee and the community."
Calling this "a difficult time for everyone," School Committee Chair Michelle Ayer was impressed with this "compromise" proposal. "Our teachers do their grading with such integrity and thoughtfulness, and this is the most fair approach."
'Thoughtful of everyone'
School Committee member Liza O'Reilly expressed "the need to be thoughtful of everyone. That's why we are considered a high-performing school system."
She offered students who are concerned about their grades a different perspective. "Grades are one component of what colleges will look at, and getting through this time and showing . . . the insights you have gained can be just as valuable as your transcript."
O'Reilly considers Swanson's proposal to be a plan "that accommodates everyone and gives students recognition for what they have accomplished."
Parent Jennifer Van Gelder Gallagher, noting that some students might not be able to complete their work due to "mitigating factors at home or emotional issues due to the school closure," asked how the credit/no credit system would work.
"We will provide more clarity very soon," Swanson responded. "My philosophy is that any student making a fair effort to complete his or her work ought to be earning credit."
Gallagher, who is co-chair of the Hingham Special Education Parent Advisory Council, said some parents she has spoken with feel as if the issue of no credit/credit is "hanging over their heads. If a child doing his or her best received a 'no credit,' that could be debilitating."
Swanson said parents feeling that way is not the intention by any means. "For a student to feel that way wouldn't align with our goals. If anything we would err on the side of compassion and support and recognize honest effort."
The issue of how students who struggle with learning remotely can play "catch up" to help ensure a successful 2020-21 school year also came up.
There is already the beginnings of a plan to address that issue, since educators anticipated there might be such a need when the schools were first closed.
In wrapping up his presentation, Swanson said there will be further public communication about the proposed policy soon.
"There will be more clarity on this issue at our May 4 meeting, when we will wrap this up," Ayer said.