2020 | Bethesda Beat

For second semester in MCPS, options are letter grade or ‘pass/incomplete’

Letter grade would be one higher than what student earned in third quarter

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The Montgomery County Board of Education meets via Zoom on Tuesday.

Screenshot via live stream

In an effort to “do no harm” to students forced to learn remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, the Montgomery County Board of Education on Tuesday voted to give high school students the choice of whether to receive a letter grade for the second semester.

If students choose a letter grade, it will be one letter higher than what they received in the third marking period. If they prefer to not receive a letter grade, “pass” or “incomplete” will be recorded on their transcript.

“There’s no perfect solution to this,” board member Rebecca Smondrowski said. “It’s unfortunate, but we’re doing the very best that we can. … This doesn’t seem like it would do any harm to anyone, nearest I can tell.”

Coping with new ways of instruction and assessment while school buildings are closed during the pandemic, officials decided in April that all students will receive a “pass” or “incomplete” for the fourth quarter. That raised questions about how second-semester grades — made up of the average of third and fourth quarter grades — would be calculated.

Initially, MCPS staff members recommended students’ semester grades also be administered on a pass/incomplete scale. At the time, staff members said they feared that allowing students to choose how to record their grades would lead to inequities and unconscious bias in grading.

Over the past three weeks, approximately 2,000 people sent emails to the school board with their thoughts and recommendations, according to MCPS staff members.

On Tuesday, the school board voted 7-1 to approve a more flexible option that allows students to choose whether to have letter grades or “pass” or “incomplete” on their transcripts for each class.

Judy Docca was the lone dissenting vote. She supported giving students semester grades that were one letter higher than their third quarter grades, but not providing the option to choose to receive “pass” or “incomplete” grades.

If students choose “passing” grades for all of their courses, there would be no impact on their overall GPA. Only letter grades affect GPAs, Superintendent Jack Smith said.

If students choose to receive letter grades in some classes and “pass” others, only the classes in which they receive letter grades would be factored into their GPA calculation, Smith said.

He said he expects the “vast majority” of students will “want their letter grades,” but the school district will “need to do an exceptionally good job of counseling our students about the benefits of each option.”

If students end the fourth quarter with an “incomplete” grade, they will “have an opportunity to improve/resolve” the grade during the summer or “learning recovery period,” according to MCPS spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala. Details about the opportunities were not immediately available.

The state Board of Education in April approved a waiver allowing school districts to modify students’ final grades until January 2021 due to the pandemic.

All students, regardless of which option they choose, will have “markers” on their transcripts that indicate the grades were earned during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is particularly important for middle school students taking high school courses, according to Janet Wilson, associate superintendent in the MCPS Office of Shared Accountability.

“While COVID-19 will be fresh in our minds for the next few years … our memories do fade fast sometimes,” Wilson said. “So when colleges look back at these transcripts and see ‘pass’ among letter grades, it will be a reminder of the situation.”

School board President Shebra Evans requested that the district’s Office of Shared Accountability conduct an analysis of the effects of the grading decision to identify any “disparate outcomes” for students.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com