Alex Zimmerman and Christina Veiga, Chalkbeat New York
New York City schools will relax normal grading procedures across all ages and expand summer course work for students who need it, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday, unveiling the city’s official policy six weeks into the shift to remote learning.
The new policy, which could dramatically reshape the competitive admissions process to get into coveted middle and high schools, takes into account that students may be experiencing trauma and have difficulties accessing online learning, the mayor said. It also aims to keep high school students on track to graduate and maintains some expectations for student work.
“We have to understand the moment and be flexible about the moment but also hold those high expectations” de Blasio said. “We’re going to find a way to continue education for those who need it.”
Previous plans to promote all students to the next grade were scrapped in the final policy. An education department spokesperson said the city is not “automatically promoting any grades.”
For elementary school students, teachers will evaluate whether a student is “meeting standards” or “needs improvement,” based on writing samples, projects, or other assignments.
The same procedure is in place for middle school students in grades 6-8 with one addition: They can also receive a “course in progress” on their report cards, which means they will automatically be enrolled in summer school.
For elementary school students, “needs improvement” can count as a student’s final grade for the year.
High school students will continue to receive normal letter grades, with the exception that no one will receive a failing grade. They will have the option to convert their grade to a “pass” rating, which would not affect their GPA.
Those who receive a “course in progress” on their report card — indicating the class is not yet complete — will be enrolled in summer school and have until January 2021 to complete any outstanding work. (Students in middle school who earn a “course in progress” will have a chance to improve their marks, according to the education department, but they did not provide a timeline by which students are required to make up work.)
The city is in talks with state education officials to determine what will happen to those who reach the age of 21, when students typically age out of the public school system, but fail to meet graduation requirements by the end of the semester. Some advocates want those students, who may have disabilities or attend alternative high schools, to continue to be enrolled next year, with the chance to earn a diploma.
In addition to middle and high school students who receive “course in progress” ratings, those elementary and middle school students who “need improvement” may also be enrolled in summer programming — though it was not immediately clear if that would be a requirement or how those decisions would be made.
The push for summer learning could create tension with the city’s teachers union, which has pushed back against extending the school year. De Blasio did not offer specifics on Tuesday about the education department’s summer learning efforts. It was unclear to what extent it would mirror traditional summer school offerings that teachers elect to cover for extra pay, or how many students could be required to participate.
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew praised the policy.
“We needed a grading policy that captures the work students have done this year, both in the classroom and during distance learning, while not punishing students for things outside of their control,” he said in a statement. “We think this policy strikes that balance by incorporating the concerns of parents, teachers and stakeholders.”
Others argued the policy would unfairly penalize students who lack access to remote learning.
Advocates for Children, which provides legal and other services to families navigating the school system, said it’s most likely that the students marked as needing improvement are those who are already struggling and are lacking the same level of support, such as students in temporary housing, overcrowded apartments, and those with disabilities or who are still learning English.
“We are deeply concerned about the impact this policy will have on students who — through no fault of their own — have been unable to engage in remote learning,” said Kim Sweet, executive director of the organization. “They should not be punished for falling behind simply because their family cannot afford a computer, high-speed internet access, or the other resources necessary to rapidly transition to online schooling.”
Debate about the city’s grading policy had erupted in recent days as details leaked into public view. Some parent leaders criticized the city’s approach, arguing that getting rid of letter grades for elementary and middle school students would not give students recognition for exemplary work. Some feared it could upend the middle and high school application process for students who were still able to continue their studies.
“The policy is about more than just a grade. It’s about motivating our students, and parents and teachers — because everybody is human — to want to see everything through to the end of June,” said state Sen. John Liu, of Queens, who along with other advocates had pushed for the city to maintain letter grades for all students, not just those in high school.
Meanwhile, other advocates pushed back in the opposite direction, arguing that continuing to grade students ignores that the playing field is stacked against families who lack access to online learning, live in communities that are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, or whose parents are not able to supervise at-home education.
“Now is a time where we can really think, in a much more deep and radical way, the way that grades work,” said Peter Lamphere, a math teacher at a bilingual high school for recent immigrants in Washington Heights. “And I’m not sure that now is the time to just sort of stick with a regular grading system.”
Lamphere recently lost contact with one of his students, who was not submitting assignments or answering texts and phone calls. He found out this week that the student had been in the hospital with the coronavirus for 10 days, alongside his mother.
This summer will be more important than ever to help students catch up, but given funding cuts to schools due to the economic fallout of the virus, and the challenges posed to families by the health crisis, Lamphere wonders whether it will be enough.
“I find it hard to imagine they’re going to be able to reopen school buildings over the summer, and there are going to be a lot of students facing difficult home situations,” he said. “So I worry about the impact of an incomplete on a kids’ grades.”
The new grading policy also has major implications for admissions next year.
Many New York City middle and high schools admit students based on their academic records, but the pandemic has forced the city and state to suspend the most commonly used measures.
Attendance no longer counts towards enrollment decisions, the state has canceled standardized tests, and now, traditional grades have been dramatically altered for students vying for competitive middle and high schools.
The education department is still developing guidance on how the middle and high school admissions process will work, according to Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza.
“We will not penalize students in any way shape or form because of circumstances out of their control,” he said.
De Blasio also said the city is working to ensure that as many high school seniors as possible can graduate and will hold a citywide virtual graduation celebration that would include notable public school graduates.
“We’re going to give you something you’ll remember for the rest of your life,” he said.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.