We are living through extraordinary times.

Every day we run up against new decisions that have to be made for the first time. We are forced to develop new frameworks on the fly.  We may not know how the choices we make today will affect tomorrow.

A current topic of discussion is how to handle student grades. Specifically, how should we assess high school grades for the second semester of the 2019/2020 school year. While this is a much lower priority than stopping the spread of a global pandemic while trying to figure out how to safely restart our economy, it is a decision that will impact a generation of high school students. It is a decision that should be given careful and significant thought.

What happened at our schools in March?

In mid-March, schools unexpectedly shut down in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. Most students were in the middle of their current semesters. Schools took a brief break and came back with an online approach to learning. Known as “distance learning,” this was a huge undertaking for teachers and school administrators. 

Schools scrambled to ensure that each student had a device and internet access. Teachers pivoted to adapt their lesson plans to online platforms. Incredibly, this happened in a matter of just days! In my opinion, this Herculean effort has not been properly acknowledged. Our teachers and school administrators really stepped up to save the ailing school year and should be applauded for their efforts.

Instead of having to shut down education in March, students are now actively learning from home. 

What are the options for assessment?

So how should high school assessments be handled in our new normal? It’s not an easy question.

In an ideal situation, there would be uniformity across the state. But this isn’t practical and won’t happen. Each school district will have to figure it out for themselves.

Everyone seems to agree that no student should be penalized for the current situation.

So far, some school districts are offering assessments of only credit or no credit. Other districts are offering letter grades with a guaranteed safety net, freezing the grade that was earned at the time of the shutdown and offering the opportunity to achieve a higher grade. Some districts are allowing student to choose between letter grades and credit. You may have even heard of one large district to the north of us that is proposing that all students receive straight A’s!

Why should grades matter at a time like this?

Each student is in a unique and fluid situation. For some, continuing to work hard to achieve a grade is an important motivation and distraction. For others, having to think about grades may create additional stress and anxiety. 

Within my pediatric practice, I have heard each of these models debated by students, teachers and parents. 

I would like to share the arguments for letter grades with a guaranteed safety net versus credit/no credit and make the case for why a hybrid model, where students get to make the choice, may be the best option for this unprecedented moment in time.

The rationale behind a letter grade option

Students who feel that it is in their best interest to earn a letter grade should be given the option of earning a letter grade. Students should be guaranteed the grade that they had earned prior to the March school shutdown and have the opportunity to use the remaining school year to improve that grade.

For some students, having the extrinsic goal of working for a higher letter grade will help them make the coming weeks easier to handle. They will use their schoolwork as motivation. It will distract them from many of the sudden and disruptive changes in their lives.

For those who have had their sports, theater, music, friends and extracurricular activities stripped away, the ability to thrive in their academics may be all that they have left. For these students, the option of a letter grade will be of extreme importance to their emotional and psychological health.

For this group of students, the option to pursue a letter grade will relieve a significant amount of stress and anxiety.

The rationale for having a Credit/No Credit option

Students who feel that it is in their best interest to earn credit, instead of a letter grade, should be given that option for this semester. Reasons for choosing credit over a letter grade will be varied and are all valid. We must respect this choice and offer credit as an option.

Having the option of credit/no credit will undoubtedly help to relieve stress and anxiety for those who choose it.

What about yet unforeseen circumstances?

There may be a subset of students who do not yet know if they prefer to have a letter grade or credit/no credit. These students should speak with their teachers, counselors and parents to make an informed decision.

Some students may choose one option but later request to make a change due to an unforeseen circumstance. Consideration should be given to allow these students to make an adjustment before the end of the school year.

The hybrid model is a Win-Win solution!

A hybrid approach has already been adopted by school districts across the country, including the two largest school districts in California (Los Angeles and San Diego). Locally, Santa Maria Joint Unified High School District has announced that it is also allowing students to have a choice. This is also the strategy being implemented at most colleges and universities.

Some school districts, like in Denver, started out only offering credit/no credit but have now reconsidered their position and have adopted the hybrid model to allow for students to have more choice.

While a hybrid option may create some additional administrative work, I feel strongly that we should still do everything that we can to help every single one of our students at this crucial time. The hybrid model is reasonable and it allows each student to make a choice based on his/her own personal circumstances. It will offer what is best for each student and is therefore a win-win solution for EVERY student.

No one could have predicted our current predicament. The school year was on life support and our educators are coming to the rescue. Each student faces a different set of unique challenges. As a community, we should do everything we can to create a safety net that benefits each of our students. 

At this moment in time, offering high school students a choice of how to be assessed is the best opportunity to create something positive out of a horrendous situation.

— Dr. Dan Brennan is a board-certified pediatrician at Sansum Clinic who thanks you for staying home to protect your tribe and help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Please contact Dr. Dan at 805.563.6211, drb@sbpediatrics.com or visit www.sbpediatrics.com.